- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

Can you make a butter dispenser seem interesting? If you're an exhibit interpreter with the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), you can. In fact, you must. Just a few weeks ago a woman stood in front of a group at FONZ headquarters trying to do just that.
What was a butter dispenser doing in a class for trainee exhibit interpreters who were preparing to work at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Cheetah Conservation Station?
The show and tell really wasn't so unusual. The class of 15 education volunteers, just three weeks away from their first date with the six cheetahs that prowl around a yard near the zoo's Connecticut Avenue entrance, was learning how to talk about animals to the zoo-going public. Each trainee had brought in some object likely to challenge classmates' interpretive abilities. This white plastic kitchen object, inherently boring, was the perfect tool.
The class was one in a routine five-week session run by FONZ, which incorporates such instruction into its academic program. These trainees, who will meet the public regularly for the next year or more, must know how to bring clarity and verve to their explanations of such sometimes dry subjects as animal conservation, nutrition and anatomy. In the field, interpreters use photos, models and diagrams from a "cheetah learning station" cart to help them illustrate their talks. Of course, they can always point to cheetahs Chiku, Jomu, Wandu, Amadi, Bikita and Norok.
The butter dispenser brought some laughs, as did a sporran the purse a Scotsman wears with his kilt and the Australian aborigine "telephone," called a bull-roarer. Class members obviously knew how to amuse their colleagues. Follow-up questions from group leaders, however, were serious.
"What did you like best about what you did?" cheetah keeper Kate Voltz asked at the end of one talk, suggesting by her example that a good way to open up a discussions is to ask a question.
"Remember, you are the bearer of knowledge," Craig Saffoe of the zoo's animal-care staff told the group of five he was leading. He paused at another point to compliment a woman who had brought a special folding umbrella. "I liked the fact you were animated," he told her.
"You can explain simple things, like the fact that there is a hill in the yard because cheetahs like to look around," he advised.
"If someone [in the public] goes off in a direction, go with the flow. A lot of times the cats are not in the yard. If the cats are locked up, you can go to another exhibit. The cranes are always visible. There are going to be a lot of things that throw you off. Expect the unexpected. You'll always get someone who will push you."

Docents are volunteers trained by institutions to help educate visitors with knowledge and insight that would be hard to find in a guidebook. Many Washington institutions rely on such people to bring exhibits and programs alive to visitors, because they can't afford additional staff to do the job.
After receiving an education that can seem like a college-level course, docents and interpreters direct visitors to aspects of art, artifacts, nature and animal lore that the public might otherwise overlook. They do it purely for the love of learning and the stimulation that comes from audience response. They are expected to be able to answer questions of every imaginable variety that visitors of all ages and backgrounds throw at them.
They do so on their own time, and the material benefits are few: a badge or a T-shirt, free parking while at work, and discounts in the cafeteria and gift shop. Homework is required, and several institutions, such as the National Gallery of Art, expect docent trainees to pass written quizzes.
Finding applicants is no problem, program managers say, even though much of the work takes place on weekends. Personal interviews are required to judge a candidate's suitability for working with the public.
Among local art museums, the National Gallery has one of the largest groups of docents and offers what is perhaps the most extensive training for a volunteer crew, which numbers 270 100 adult-education volunteers and 170 volunteers who work with school and children's groups. These are exclusively indoor guides educated free of charge in an atmosphere few colleges can imitate: among great art on display everywhere around them.
National Gallery training sessions mirror an academic year, beginning in the fall with an introduction to art history and continuing for 30 sessions, plus regular review sessions. Docents have to keep up with changing exhibits that can number as many as 25 in a year.
The Gallery's coordinator of tours and lectures says 50 percent of people submitting written applications are accepted for training. Requirements include a bachelor's degree and experience working with the public, as well as a demonstrated commitment to the visual arts. Upon completion of the program, docents typically come in once or twice a month to lead a total of three or four tours.
• • •
Likewise, education volunteers at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park reap a world of zoological and biological knowledge from zoo experts. About 400 exhibit interpreters are at work on zoo grounds at various hours, courtesy of FONZ. The FONZ program, which takes people 18 years and older, has a higher acceptance rate than the National Gallery, possibly because the time commitment is less
Some interpreters, such as the above recruits, who recently finished a training program for the Cheetah Conservation Station, train only for seasonal work, from April to November, but they are a minority. Most education volunteers can be found year-round, unhampered by weather. They report to work in a drizzle but not in a downpour. They are expected to stay a minimum of one year, working three three-hour shifts a month, and to attend a monthly meeting. They usually specialize in a particular group of animals in class sessions, some of which last as long as six hours.
FONZ is especially diligent about teaching communication techniques because interpreters, who are a cross between a teacher and an entertainer, use objects at their posts to entice onlookers to explore and examine elements of the natural world and how they relate to human life.
"Research indicates that only seven percent of a verbal message is communicated through words; 23 percent of the message is communicated through voice; and, amazingly, body signals account for 70 percent of the message," reads a passage in the section on "Elements of Interpretation" in the March 2002 Cheetah Conservation Station Exhibit Training Manual. Interpreters are expected to absorb most of what is contained in the 61-page, hardbound three-ring notebook by the end of the course.
Even so, Mr. Saffoe on that Thursday evening reminded his group that "one of our jobs is not to assume the role of teaching everything." He recalled a time when he had a plateful of sperm in his hand. "I was having an adult conversation when a kid asks, 'What is that?' I looked over at the mother as if to ask permission, and she said 'Oh, they are tadpoles.'"
The full class had spent the first part of the class hearing Ms. Voltz talk about African crowned cranes and Speke's gazelle, animals that, though part of the Cheetah Conservation Station, are housed in separate areas. (Cheetah conservation and research had been the topic a previous week, during which the class played a mock "Jeopardy" game about cheetahs. A future class would be devoted to Grevy's zebra.) Mr. Saffoe's report about the recent artificial insemination of one of the zoo's six cheetahs that had been greeted by cheers.
Most trainees admitted unashamedly to being "cat people," but they were studiously alert to information about cranes and gazelles seemingly less exciting species but reliable crowd-pleasers when guides throw out some esoteric information about habits and habitat.
"The cranes are the national bird of Uganda and are now found only in Africa," Ms. Voltz noted among other facts.
Just why would members of such a diverse a crowd willingly spend their free time this way? Explanations were as varied as professional backgrounds, but most interpreter trainees seemed to agree with the class member who said, "It makes you forget what happened all during the day, and you are doing good when you can talk about the need for cheetah conservation."
Angelia Gates of Alexandria, who early in life wanted to be a veterinarian but became a lawyer dealing in commercial real estate, seeks out animal-related work. She also volunteers for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It's an ongoing educational process," she observed.
"You can control an elephant but you really can't do that with a cheetah," remarked a women drawn to the zoo because she lives nearby and is especially fascinated by the wildness of cheetahs.
"I've been in Washington for 20 years, and the zoo has been one of the major attractions in the area," said neurologist Alison Wichman of the National Institutes of Health, adding, "I'm basically an educator at heart."
She said she couldn't explain her attraction to cheetahs. "I'm not really sure. Maybe because they are so fast. I saved money as a kid to buy a cheetah, then I realized, what could a cheetah do in Kentucky?"

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