Know a teen who likes to walk on the wild side? They may be the perfect candidate for the ZOOTeen Program at the Toledo Zoo.
“The ZOOTeen Program, launched in 1999, provides an opportunity for teens to connect with the Zoo, animals, nature and the community at large,” explains Bill Davis, Director of Volunteers. “Since its inception, the program has grown, not only in the number of participants, but in the range and depth of the opportunities that are available. Through the ZOOTeen Program, teens meet new friends, learn about the animals and the zoo and develop a range of personal skills, including interpersonal communication, time management, problem-solving and team-building.”
A rewarding experience
For Alyssabeth LaPlante, 17, the zoo was the perfect environment for growing, learning, and connecting with others. She became a ZOOTeen in June 2018. “I joined because my sister was already a part of the program, and I saw all the amazing opportunities she was a part of,” LaPlante said. “I also have loved animals my whole life and plan on going into biology and animal sciences after high school, so I wanted more experience with different available jobs.”
LaPlante, a senior at Clay High School, has served as the ZOOTeen enrichment chair as well as the organization’s vice president. Some of her favorite community activities include working with the Being Project and the Humane Society. “Being Project was created by ZOOTeens. We go downtown to a parking lot by the Toledo library and we play with kids, talk to adults and help the Fellowship Matters team pass out food and essentials to the unhoused population of Toledo,” says LaPlante, adding that “the best feeling is when you turn the corner into the parking lot and the kids recognize our yellow shirts and run over to give hugs.”
At the Humane Society, ZOOTeens will often help walk dogs, clean the cat and kitten rooms, and socialize the animals. ZOOTeens also offers enrichment for the animals in the zoo exhibits.
“Enrichment is a huge part of running a zoo,” she said. “Enrichment is anything that makes the animals work their minds. Without it, the animals would be bored and pacing. As an enrichment team member, I use papier mache and cardboard to make non-toxic hollow cutouts, and I decorate with non-toxic paint. I made enrichment items for every animal in the zoo besides the primates and animals with water enclosures.” The hard work pays off when volunteers see the animals benefit. “The most rewarding part was to see how the animals interact with the enrichment, such as elephants who eat [the items] whole, while the bears just rip them open,” LaPlante said.
As part of Keeper Help, teens are given opportunities to go into exhibits to clean and renovate enclosures (when animals are not in those locations). They also feed animals under supervision, as there is a no touch policy while working in exhibits.
Developing future leaders
A love of animals prompted Kennedy Koontz, 17, to join the ZOOTeens program. Through a unique program, Koontz, a senior at Bedford High School, learned that she also loved working with teens with disabilities. “I’ve been in the program since 2017,” she says. “I heard about the program through friends and decided to join because I wanted to learn more about animals, but quickly discovered my passion for leadership.”
Koontz joined the ADaPT program in 2018, which allows teens with disabilities to participate by providing personalized accommodations to meet their needs. “This has been one of my favorite experiences, as I have learned a lot about people. It has been really cool to see teens reach a level of independence that they may never have thought they could,” Koontz added.
Learn more at upcoming information sessions
Interested teens can attend informational sessions in January and February with a parent or guardian, where they will meet staff and current members while learning about various opportunities. Registration is now available on the Zoo’s website.
“ZOOTeens have the opportunity to support a range of activities at the Zoo, including staffing educational carts and stations, assisting summer camps and helping with special events. In addition, ZOOTeens can choose to support different projects and organizations throughout the community,” Davis says. Projects include Partners for Clean Streams, Toledo Metroparks, Toledo GROWS and the Seagate Food Bank, among others.
“Ultimately, what ZOOTeens take away from this program will depend on their level of participation,” Davis said. “Much like life, the more they put into it, the more they will receive from it.”