LivAbility Magazine

By Jennifer Longdon
Photos by Aitana Yvette Mallari

If spending time with giraffes, stingrays or farm animals sounds like fun, volunteering at the Phoenix Zoo may be your calling. The zoo takes applications for these highly coveted volunteer positions twice a year. Following an interview process, those who are chosen undergo extensive training that includes an exam before they begin directing visitors as trail guides. After forty hours as a trail guide, volunteers are ready to branch out for new opportunities. While most volunteers interact with guests, some graduate to work directly with the animals. Individuals with specific skills who are interested in behind-the-scenes work (plumbing, fundraising, data entry, etc.) will also find volunteer opportunities. Through various opportunities, the Zoo staffs about 400 regular volunteers – 100 in the Zoo Teens program and 300 more adult volunteers.

Every volunteer shift starts with a pre-shift briefing that includes a rundown of relevant zoo operations and events, information on ongoing conservation efforts and on various animals that feels to be part family update and part pop-quiz. This briefing was led by Wayne Warrington, Volunteer Manager, who along with two other staffers conveyed a steady stream of information and occasional jokes. The atmosphere is relaxed yet each of the volunteers are treated as esteemed colleagues. It is clear these people care for each other and for their work at the zoo.

A young girl (probably 5-7 years old) feeding lettuce to a giraffe. The giraffe's blue tongue is outstretched to reach the girls hand.

During our visit, the volunteers in the pre-shift briefing were shown a photo of a deer-like animal. They went around the table, first identifying the animal, then its home and habitat, etc. After displaying an exhaustive knowledge of the gerenuk, also known as a giraffe gazelle from Somalia, they identified where, among the nearly 1,500 animals spread over 125 acres, gerenuks could be found.

During our visit, we met four long-time zoo volunteers who happen to have disabilities and got to see them in action.

Darren Peschke and his father Warren (Skip) Paschke (above) have been regular zoo volunteers since 2010. They alternate weekly between serving as trail guides and spending time on the savannah helping at the giraffe feeding area. Darren, who has Down syndrome, controls visitor traffic coming onto the feeding deck and explains how to interact with the gentle giants. Skip oversees visitors’ interaction with the giraffes and takes photos. Skip credits their time as volunteers with helping ease Darren’s depression and helping him strengthen his interaction with people. Darren is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the zoo and his photo documentation. Darren has 1,029 hours of volunteer service and Skip has 1,026.

Ashleigh Johnson sits in her power chair and pets a goat.

Ashleigh Johnson began volunteering in 2004 –straight out of high school. She prefers working with the goats in the Red Barn at Harmony Farm where visitors are given palm brushes to stroke the goats rather than kibble. Ashley explained that feeding the goats can make them aggressively chase visitors for food and mob the entrances. She finds the goats calming and enjoys her interactions with visitors. She explains that those interactions have given her more confidence. Born with spina bifida, Ashleigh uses a power wheelchair and moves easily around the goat compound. She has 13,202 hours of volunteer service.

Dorla Newell and Chance Summers stand by a gate.

Chance Summers lives in Cave Creek and will graduate high school this year. Each week, he and his grandmother, Dorla Newell, volunteer in Stingray Bay where visitors get to touch and feed cownose rays. Dorla supervises the stingray pools while Chance, who lives with Down syndrome, thanks visitors as they leave and offers hand sanitizer. He monitors the exit to ensure no one enters through there. Chance has 124 hours of volunteer service and Dorla has 210.

CJ Horton sits on a fence by a windmill.

Every Sunday for the past 3.5 years, CJ Horton volunteers at Discovery Farm. He describes himself as “someone with a learning impairment.” CJ enjoys animal husbandry and his future plans may include attending a 2-year program in Moor Park, CA for exotic animal management and training. While we visited, he worked to prepare “boomer balls” for the horses and his favorite donkey, Popeye. The balls contain treats and toys and act as puzzles to entertain the animals. He also volunteers at the Botanical Garden. He has 1,072 hours.

Jennifer Longdon

Jennifer Longdon

Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time.