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Reporter's Notebook

My second favorite thing about being a Wildkeepers Club volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is the reaction I get when I explain the program.

"So, let me get this straight ... you pay them ... to let you volunteer?"

"Yeah!"

"And you get up at 5 a.m. to either take the ferry or drive through Tacoma to do manual labor for three or four hours?"

"Yeah!"

My favorite thing about being a Wildkeepers Club volunteer is the experience of getting "behind the scenes" of the exhibits, seeing the animals up close and talking at length with the zookeepers.

For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation is possible.

But as one fond of tilting at windmills and foolishly rushing in where angels fear to tread, I'll give it a shot.

When you buy an annual membership to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, you have an option to add $50 to your membership to become a Wildkeeper Club volunteer.

Then every six weeks or so, volunteer coordinator Teri Maylor sends you an e-mail announcing the next volunteer day.

They alternate between Saturday and Sunday, which because of the Sunday ferry schedule means driving through Tacoma to arrive at the Woodland Park Zoo Education Center by 8:15 a.m.

After everybody signs in and fills out a release form, Teri explains the day's projects and asks for volunteers. She usually brings banana bread or cookies or something as a thank you.

Then we're off to meet the zookeepers and start on our projects.

Zookeepers are some of the most enjoyable people to be around. They love their jobs. They love animals. They even seem to love the hard but necessary tasks that go into caring for them.

And they really love us Wildkeeper Club volunteers. We do the projects they don't have the time or people to do themselves. We also free up these highly skilled people from doing grunt work.

This grunt work can include hauling sand into the mountain goat exhibit, hauling downed tree branches out of the elk exhibit and squeegeeing dry mats in the giraffe exhibit.

I really wished someone had called me during one of these projects in particular.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm cleaning the feces-laced

mulch out of the colobus monkey exhibit and replacing it with new stuff."

"No, seriously, what are you

doing?"

The best part comes after the work is done. It's not a given, but often we are rewarded with "up close and personal" experiences.

We've fed grapes to the lemurs and carrots to the elk (including a 15-year-old nearly blind bull elk named "Woody").

We've watched the two grizzly bear brothers Keema and Denali try to catch trout.

We've watched a zookeeper train the colobus monkeys to stick out their arms or ears or whatever, which is necessary for medical tests.

We've been back in the holding areas to watch the sun bears wrestling with each other and the two elderly lions nuzzling each other.

It's not that you never forget these experiences when reminded. It's that you always remember them, without any prompting. They are worth every minute of lost sleep from the o'-dark-30 wake-up time and every mile of the 80 (by ferry) or 140 (through Tacoma) miles it takes to get there.

If you're interested, go to Woodland Park Zoo's Web site, www.zoo.org. You can add the Wildkeeper Club option when you buy your membership. If you're already a member, just call the membership office and they can add it for you.



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