- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - Some of Hannah Hoyt’s fondest childhood memories were made at the Alexandria Zoo.

She remembers following around the zookeepers and wanting to learn more about what they do. Hoyt is 17 now, but her interest has not gone away, so she jumped at the chance to join the Alexandria Zoo’s Explorer Program.

Hoyt, a home school student, was one of 16 new teens who attended the volunteer program’s three-day orientation.

“I just wanted to be able to learn mostly and teach other people,” said Hoyt, who had to submit an essay about why she wanted to be an explorer, a recommendation letter and go through an interview process with staff at the zoo.

The training week held each May is sponsored by Boy Scouts of America, but is open to boys and girls ages 14-18 who have completed eighth grade. It is staffed by adult volunteers at the zoo like Nancy White and Diane Sallinger with the help of older explorers.

“This can be a stepping stone,” Sallinger said, adding that the program is aimed toward teens like Hoyt who have an interest in one day working with animals. In fact, some in the more than 20-year-old program have gone on to work at Sea World, the Alexandria Zoo and other zoos.

“I’m considering doing something animal related in the future,” said Hoyt, who is still toying with one day being a veterinarian.

Others in the program simply meet the criteria of being animal lovers. Corbin Loper, a 17-year-old senior at Holy Savior Menard High School, joined two years ago because he has a love for animals and wanted to meet people after just moving to the area. Loper has been an explorer ever since and volunteers regularly at zoo events.

“I think it’s taught me good communication skills,” Loper said, as well as, how to provide “education for the public.”

One of the main goals of the program is educate explorers so they can in turn educate visitors. During training week, explorers learned facts about zoo exhibits and artifacts and then had to give a presentation.

Heather Betz, the zoo’s educational curator, said the zoo likes having teen educators because they tend to catch people’s attention.

“They’re very energetic,” Betz said of the teenagers who volunteer. “So that helps the delivery and impresses the public as well.”

Explorers are not allowed to handle the animals unless they stick with the program for several years. But everyone is allowed to shadow zookeepers and do chores like cleaning the exhibits and making food.

Teens also learned about the physical care of the animals by visiting the hospital. They explored the psychological side, too through what zoos call “enrichment.”

Enrichment items are made at the zoo and mimic a sound, smell or something in an animal’s natural habitat. They appeal to one or more of the senses, and if successful, cause the animals to act as they would in the wild.

The new explorers had a chance to create their first enrichment item. They started out with a simple project for the zoo’s birds. Each teen received a giant pine cone to smear with peanut butter and sprinkle with bird seed. They will be put in the bird cages around the zoo.

“Enrichment, that’s the thing I have a big heart for,” Hoyt said. “I like seeing the animals and helping them to be more natural.”

Each teen is required to volunteer 40 hours a year for the Explorer Program, which has about 30 members. Learning does not stop during training week either.

“It’s a constant ongoing thing that doesn’t stop with these three days,” Sallinger said.

The explorers will also help at the zoo’s annual summer camps for kids, and like Loper, have a chance to train new explorers.

Loper said the days spent training new members are some of his favorite.

“It’s meeting new people, and it’s really fun. I’m even learning new things,” Loper said. “It’s just a fun week.”

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Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, http://www.thetowntalk.com

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