After our family dog Emily died on June 28, 2012, I drifted into a grief cloud for months. But two positives emerged from that period: I started attending the annual Write on the Sound conference in Edmonds, and I became a volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo. Both experiences have enriched my life in more ways than I can count. If you are looking for ways to enrich your social connections, consider volunteering doing something you love. Maybe you couldĀ do the Zoo for a brand new you.

Do the Zoo: Animal Watches

One of my favorite shifts in 2021 was participating in animal watches. On a watch, volunteers spend several hours with a particular animal or group of individuals, noting every five or ten minutes what they’re doing. While my Animal Unit Volunteer (AUV) position helping with the giraffes remained closed, I shifted to participating in animal watches. All three animals I studied were in exhibits I don’t often get a chance to visit: Alpine keas, Komodo dragons, and Colobus monkeys. Spending time with each taught me more about their natural behaviors and provided details and stories I could then share with guests.

Komodo Dragons

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Barani and Nakal, the two Komodo dragons, climb the walls in their new exhibits and dig in their sand pits. These endangered lizards only live in a very small region in Indonesia, on Komodo Island and Flores Island. The biggest threat to these impressive reptiles? Man encroaching on their territory and poaching their food sources.

Barani, an 8-year-old Komodo Dragon at Woodland Park Zoo



The Zoo has four Keas who often blend in with the olive-green surroundings of their exhibit. Only through standing in front of their exhibit, listening to the birds call to each other, and watching closely have I been able to learn where their favorite spots are inside their exhibit. Patience pays off! They can be tricky to photograph at the Zoo, however, without getting mesh between the camera and a kea. I’ve also been fortunate to see two during a visit to New Zealand’s South Island.

Wild alpine parrot (Kea) on the roof of a car in New Zealand


Colobus Monkeys

These black-and-white, long-tailed monkeys native to Africa live near the gorilla exhibit. During a recent watch, guests commented most often about their long, white, bushy tails and skunk-like coloring. Animal keepers trained Blondie (pictured), Grabby, and Lewis, the newest member of the family.

Sometimes animals are named after keepers. Other times, they receive names in their native language. Blondie has white hair on her toes. Grabby likes to take food from Blondie.

Volunteer with Horticulture

In July 2021, I accepted a temporary six-month Horticulture shift on Thursday mornings, the day I used to help on the savanna. Through Labor Day, I helped water the ferns and new plants in the Dinosaur Discovery loop, a temporary exhibit in the south part of the Zoo grounds near the Family Farm.

Once the Zoo grounds opened at 9:30, we continued to do other tasks. We cut browse (another word for snack plants) at nearby Greenlake for all the herbivores. One shift included arranging flowers for Jungle Party, the Zoo’s annual fundraiser. On other shifts, I helped rake, prune, transplant plants, and more. A side benefit of volunteering with Horticulture was asking questions about gardening from one of the best in the business.

Another benefit is accessing behind-the-scenes areas that are off-limits to the general public. Seeing all the areas the public does not gives me a much greater appreciation of all that the Zoo staff does to run such a highly esteemed facility.

Do the Zoo: Wildkeepers

During my eight years as a volunteer, one of my favorite shifts was as a Wildkeeper, what we in brown sweatshirts (volunteer colors) lovingly refer to as glorified Zookeepers without benefits. Sweeping, shoveling, raking, laying gravel — you name it, the Wildkeepers do it.

Not only do we get a great workout, but after every several-hour shift of manual labor, we receive our own enrichment, a close encounter with a select “animal of the day.” Following several hours of raking in October, I fed apple pieces to the de-scented skunk, Harry, and I met Jibini, the Milky Eagle Owl, who hatched on January 28, 2020.

Jibini, the Zoo’s Milky Eagle-Owl


Animal Visibility Watch

This shift may be my favorite during COVID times. For each two-hour shift, volunteers visit twenty animals who live scattered throughout the zoo. We spend up to a minute looking for each animal, roughly the time guests spend looking before they move on. We simply mark whether we saw the animal (s) before continuing.


I took the following shots during my AV watches. Wallaroos and Wallabies are smaller cousins of kangaroos. They live in the Zoo’s Australasia exhibit. I’ve been fortunate enough to see their larger cousins, the kangaroos, in their natural habitat in Australia. They’re high on my list of animals to learn more about whenever they have another watch.

Assam Rhino Reserve

Another animal I’ve enjoyed learning about is the greater one-horned rhino. Many visitors ask if Glenn and Taj are brothers. They were born a day apart, in different zoos. Both boys will remain permanent residents at the Zoo. They have been in the former elephant exhibit since the spring of 2018.

Taj (left) and Glenn (right), summer of 2021.


Northern Trail

The Northern Trail opened in the spring of 2021 with plans to include lynx in the near future. Zeus, the male mountain goat, was translocated from Olympic National Park several years ago. He and Atlin fathered a new female kid on July 16. I have yet to get a good shot of her up close but this link will give you a great view!

I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a short mention of the heart and soul of volunteering, in my mind: getting to directly help animals. In my role for more than two years as an Animal Unit Volunteer (AUV) within the savanna, I got to spend time near baby Hasani (meaning handsome, in Swahili) before he moved to Merkel, TX.

I arrived for my shift the morning he was born, and I cried when I saw how difficult it was for him to stand. He had a condition called hyperextended fetlocks. Fortunately, an equine vet was in town and helped outfit Hasani with custom shoes to support him until he grew strong enough on his own.

Baby Hasani wearing special boots for his hyperextended fetlocks


Unfortunately, I never got to say goodbye to Hasani. The Zoo was still closed to guests and volunteers when keepers moved him to his new home. But I have fond memories of looking directly up at Dave, Hasani’s dad, as he chewed on browse in the stall next to the one I cleaned. All Zoo animals are amazing. Do you have a favorite? Are you eager to make a difference, help others, and learn? Then perhaps you, too, can do the Zoo for a brand new you.