‘Zoo Teens’ Program Valuable Outlet For Volunteers
By Robert Hughes // July 23, 2012
Competitive Yet Rewarding
BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – Talented teenagers looking for an outlet for their energy and enthusiasm are finding it with the Brevard Zoo’s “Zoo Teens” program.
Area teens chosen through a competitive application process get a chance to be involved with animals and conservation issues while they volunteer to make visitors’ time at the zoo more meaningful. In return, the teenagers learn from taking on greater responsibilities than young people normally get to tackle.
“There’s a huge variety of jobs they can do,” Zoo Teen coordinator Meg Lieth said. “They make a pledge to take on projects, and they’ve all stayed real interested and involved.”
Zoo teens normally sign up for one weekend day per month at the zoo to take on assignments that will develop their people skills as well as their animal handling abilities, but often volunteer for more days.
The program involves about 100 teens at a time who introduce visitors to hands-on zones like the “Touch Tank” where they can handle sea critters like horseshoe crabs and starfish visitors might otherwise avoid. Or at the Petting Zone, with some more familiar – and some less likely — creatures like goats, armadillos and tortoises.
If it sounds as much like fun as labor, the Zoo Teens might agree because so many of them stay on as zoo volunteers and staff after they age-out of the program (for ages 13 to 16).
Nicole Maillet’s enthusiasm for her zoo experience may top most, however.
The 22-year-old Melbourne resident recently graduated from Florida Tech in aviation management, but much of her life outside of school has revolved around the zoo.
“I have been coming to this zoo as a guest since it opened, when I was four,” she said. “And I started asking about being a Zoo Teen when I was 10, and they said you had to be 13.”
Maillet’s interest in animals was satisfied with the animal handling classes the program offers. But the animals themselves were the lesser lesson.
“You learn a lot about different things,” she said. “You learn how a chain of command works, and when you’re 13, you don’t understand that. And you definitely learn responsibility and communication skills.
Both Maillet and the zoo have benefited from those lessons.
“I can’t fault anything they do. You ask them to do anything and they do it.” Brevard Zoo interpretive services coordinator Keitha Restivo
She got her “first-ever job” after receiving a phone call from the zoo’s interpretive services coordinator, Keitha Restivo, on the first day Maillet could be hired – her 16th birthday. Today, six years later, Maillet continues her work at the zoo, which includes giving visitors kayak tours.
Restivo has been very impressed.
“I have two employees out of Zoo Teens (Maillet and Shane Gaddis),” she said. “They have been long-standing, excellent employees. I can’t fault anything they do. You ask them to do anything and they do it.”
Restivo also praised the Zoo Teen program itself, because it chooses “excellent students and kids that are much more mature than your average teenager.”
Lieth emphasized that the teens are given a lot of responsibility and trust in performing their tasks. For instance, the teens themselves are organizing an upcoming program at the zoo for area youth aged 11-18 called the Youth Eco Summit on Aug. 4.
“Our idea is to get (the teenagers) together as a group and show them inspirational things done by teens,” Lieth said. “Then we try to have them come up with their own idea and have them do every piece of it themselves.”
In the Eco-summit, the Zoo Teens “pick out the speakers in local conservation and contact them themselves,” Lieth said. “They write letters to Chick-Filet and Publix for donations of food. They just do everything.
“I think youth in general are interested in animals and conservation, and they’re looking for outlets to take part in that sort of thing.”
Lisa Curry, a 19-year-old who found her Zoo teen experience so satisfying she continued to work at the zoo, feels young people don’t quite grasp the concept of conservation so easily.
“Conservation was pushed mostly when we were doing the biofact carts (from which the teens pull out animal artifacts like bones and skins to show visitors),” Curry said. “But what (the Zoo Teens do) is mostly hands-on stuff rather than conservation.”
That “hands-on stuff” seems to lead the young volunteers to a conservation mentality, too, however.
For instance, the Zoo Teens spend the last Sunday of each month helping Keep Brevard Beautiful with its beach cleanups.
And they can’t help but be struck by the impact of the litter they find.
When asked about some of the stranger things they find in their beach cleanups, current Zoo Teens Sarah Tanke and Carolyn Biegler rolled their eyes big-time before starting their shared litany:
“Lots of doll legs,” Tanke dead-panned. “And surfboard straps. And toothbrushes.”
“A lot of fishing lines,” Biegler continued. “Fake flower petals.”
Then Tanke added, “Nine-hundred-and-fifty cigarette butts. I actually saw a trash can full of them.”
That last scary item taught perhaps the most direct lesson on what one person can do – and undo.
“A lot of people think one cigarette butt won’t matter (when they litter),” Tanke said. “But when you pick them up like that, you can see it does matter.”
The 15-year-old belied her youth when she summarized her experience as a Zoo Teen.
“You learn a lot of responsibility,” Tanke said. “And they show a lot of trust in us. At first it’s hard, then you learn what you can do. And that’s the really cool part – there are so many different things you can do.”
The application process for the 2013 Zoo Teen program starts in September.