docent training

anonymous asked:

what's your opinion on handling tarantulas?

Oh man, you’re gonna make me open this can of worms?

It depends.

For Old World species (or Psalmopoeus or Tapinauchenius species) the answer is no, no, no, absolutely not, why would you even want to do that? That’s a great way to needlessly land yourself in a lot of pain (or the hospital) and the hobby in a lot of legal trouble. For quick, flighty, jumping-prone species (probably most arboreals) the answer is also mostly no, simply because you could so easily drop or lose your tarantula.

If you want to even consider handling your tarantula get a species that is good for handling (a slow, calm, terrestrial New World species). Even then you should take precautions, such as carefully observing the tarantula’s mood, gradually getting it used to handling/human contact, not handling too often, and only holding it over a solid surface.

Now, there are people that think even this kind of handling is needlessly risky and without benefits. Those people are absolutely welcome to their opinion (I think this is a decision each keeper must make for themselves), but I would like to address some misinformation that often gets thrown around in this debate.

1) “Tarantulas cannot learn or become accustomed to handling”

As someone with a degree in both psychology and biology this is simply not true. Pretty much any organism that is capable of registering pleasant/unpleasant stimuli and remembering it can learn. There are even studies suggesting that plants can remember and become desensitized to recurring stimuli. Scientists repeated the famous “Pavlov’s dog” experiment with cockroaches and the results were pretty much identical. Although they have very different nervous systems from ours invertebrates can absolutely learn.

Firing up the body’s flight/flight systems takes a lot of energy so if something frightening occurs repeatedly without anything actually bad happening it is in an organism’s best interest to stop reacting fearfully to that stimulus (or at least to dampen the reaction).

When socializing future education tarantulas I’ve watched them go from standing on as few legs as possible the first time they walk on your hand (what I call “tiptoes”) because they don’t like the texture of human skin to crawling over a hand as if it were just another familiar part of their environment. Some tarantulas also seem to show a marked preference for familiar human hands over unfamiliar ones; it’s been proven that hissing roaches can recognize individual humans and will not hiss when someone familiar picks them up (I would love to see a study like this done with tarantulas). 

2) “A tarantula always perceives being picked up the same way it perceives being attacked/grabbed by a predator”

If you handle your tarantula correctly (using what I call the “be the ground” technique) then picking it up should not resemble a predator’s attack. There is no tarantula predator on earth that gently scoops the spider up from below. Spiders hate being breathed on and generally dislike being grabbed from above because those stimuli resemble something they would experience when being attacked by a predator (and so trigger their fight/flight alarm systems very strongly).

However scooping from below does not resemble a predator attack (assuming you’re not looming over the tarantula and breathing on them) and once they are in your hands most tarantulas will treat the hand as an inanimate surface not as a predator or even part of a larger animal. They don’t really have the senses or cognitive abilities to think “a giant animal is holding me”. More like “the ground moved and now I am standing on a weird new surface in a different place”.

The reality is that the handling of appropriate species is an enormously useful tool in educating people about tarantulas and dispelling fear. Can you educate people about tarantulas without handling them? Yes. But as someone whose full time job is to care for and educate people about arthropods I can tell you with 100% certainty that it does not have even close to the same effect.

Where I work we have dozens of beautiful, naturalistic enclosures displaying gorgeous rare tarantulas from all over the world. But the thing that gets people excited, wide-eyed, and asking questions is the highly-trained docent handling one of our well-socialized education tarantulas. There is something about seeing a person interact with the tarantula outside of a cage that makes it real for people. They ooh and aww and adults that were shrieking about how much they hate spiders while walking through the facility will say things like “I never realized how pretty they are up close” or “her feet look so dainty and gentle”.

So, while I respect every keeper’s right to decide what their comfort level and policies are when managing their own animals, I work at a facility where we handle some calm, well-socialized tarantulas and I (gently, occasionally, and with lots of precautions) handle one of mine. But it is certainly not something that people should do willy-nilly with any tarantula and without putting a lot of thought into doing it properly.

knitsandlaughs  asked:

Did you have to study before becoming a docent? Is there a base level knowledge of the zoo you are supposed to have before volunteering? Are there levels of docent?

Yes, I had to study a lot. You don’t need any base level of knowledge before you start - what you need is a willingness to learn, enthusiasm about the gig, and an ability to talk to a lot of different people in a lot of different circumstances.

Currently, my zoo has a three-step process for becoming a docent.

If you want to volunteer, you apply online and they do an interview (mostly to see your demeanor, ask why you want to do it, etc). If they like you, you get invited to become a volunteer. Here are the steps.

1. Adult Volunteer, Year One. There are certain areas of the zoo that must be staffed at all times. We refer to them as “animal contact areas” although many of them involve no actual animal contact. If there are not enough volunteers, FT or PT staff from the education department fill in the gaps. These areas include giraffe feeding, the touch pool in the aquarium, the keeper lab in the reptile building (where you can pet snakes), the Kangaroo Walkabout, the Asia Quest Aviary, the Lorikeet Garden, My Barn (the petting zoo) and I know I’m missing some but anyway. A first-year adult volunteer may only work certain animal contact areas. The training for each area is no more than a few hours and it’s very specific for just that task. I think first-year AVs work the touchpool, the keeper lab, the Barn…I’m not sure the exact breakdown.

2. Adult Volunteer, Year Two. After you’ve got a year under your belt you can graduate to the other animal contact areas. I think these include giraffe feeding, the kangaroo walkabout, some others. You get your training in those specific areas. 

Because the animal contact areas must be staffed, you sign up for a shift if you want to work there (that goes for adult volunteers and docents both) and you’re expected to show up.

If, after two years as an adult volunteer, the zoo is happy with how you talk to guests, how well you know your stuff, you show up for your shifts, etc, you can be invited to take part in docent training and become a docent. It’s optional - some volunteers are happy to stay adult volunteers and just work the Asia Quest aviary or whatever. That’s great! But if you want, you can take the training and swap your dark-green AV shirt for a red docent shirt.

And it’s some training, man. I think currently it’s eight weeks in a row, all day Saturday (like 8-4 or something). Each week covers a different area of the zoo (our zoo is laid out in regions). Morning is classroom - the keepers come and lecture on the animals there, in general and in terms of our specific animals, and in the afternoon you go out into the region and learn the layout and more about our actual animals. You can’t miss a class, so you have to have eight Saturdays in a row free. It’s a commitment.

After training is over, there’s a mentorship period where you go out into the zoo and Do the Docent Thing with an experienced docent as a mentor. He or she will help you navigate how to talk to guests, where to stand, what to say, how to interact, etc. I do this for some of the new docents sometimes.

You’re NOT required to have all the information committed to memory. It’s a LOT. Most new docents keep a notebook or a file of notecards to consult if they need a fact - remembering how old all the animals are and their names is a job, lemme tell you. New docents get very nervous about remembering everything - we try to assure them that it’s okay not to know, just don’t make stuff up if you don’t. Telling the animals apart can be a trip, too. I still can’t tell our brown bear brothers apart, they look almost identical. The gorillas I have no problem. Elephants too. The giraffes can be a challenge - we have twelve. You have to find a landmark on their spots that you can use to identify them. Our two polar bear sisters look so identical that the keepers use hair dye to mark one of their paws so that they (and we) can tell them apart.

But once your training is over, you’re a docent! Congrats. As a docent, you can work animal contact areas if you like (you still have to take that specific training for that area), but most docents do what’s called “working the region.” You come in and just…pick a region and go there. Park yourself at one exhibit, or wander the region if you like moving around. Answer questions, give directions, talk to guests about the animals and the conservation projects, etc. This is totally free-form. Show up whenever, stay as long as you want. No schedules. When we arrive we sign in a book for where we’re going to be, so that informs my decision. If I look at the book and see there are already 6 docents in Asia Quest, I might choose to go to Congo Expedition or North America instead.

Some docents do nothing but work regions. Some like to do contact areas. Many do both. Some docents only work one area, some like to mix it up. Docents sometimes also work behind the scenes helping prep the animals’ diets (it’s a lot of vegetable chopping). There are always watches to do (both in the public aisles and behind the scenes, often overnight as well) and tours and special events to help run and projects to help with, like making new enrichment items or helping set up and tear down fundraising events. We do a lot of different things. We are also required to keep going to educational meetings as part of our hours requirement, to keep us up to date on the animals in the regions.

Once you’re a docent, your first year you’re probationary, but after that we’re all just docents. Although each region does have a docent region leader. He or she is responsible for communicating between the docents and the keepers, finding people do to watches in their region, finding ways for volunteers to help the staff (like collecting enrichment items, talking up fundraisers, getting volunteers for special events in the region, etc). They work for 3 year terms and then a new region leader takes over. It’s a big job.

When I became a docent, this system had not yet been implemented. If you applied to be a docent, you went directly to docent. The problem was that for awhile there’d been a pretty high attrition rate - docents who did all the training and then just sort of dropped out or stopped showing up. It was decided then that everyone would have to be an adult volunteer first, so they could see what they were getting into, and if they liked it and wanted to keep doing it, without the zoo investing in two months’ of training on them. It seems to have worked out pretty well.


Dorlyn Catron’s cane is making its radio debut today — its name is Pete. (“He’s important to my life. He ought to have a name,” she says.)

Catron is participating in one of the America InSight tours at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum offers twice-a-month tours, led by specially trained docents, to blind and visually impaired visitors.

Docent Betsy Hennigan stops the group of nine visitors in front of Girl Skating — a small bronze sculpture from 1907 by Abestenia Saint Leger Eberle. The roller-skating girl is full of joy. The visitors — of varied ages, races and backgrounds — stand close together, hands on top of their long canes, facing Hennigan as she describes the artwork: The little girl careens forward, arms outstretched, her hair and her dress flow behind her.

Carol Wilson trains the 12 volunteer docents. “Sight isn’t the only pathway to understand art,” she says. Wilson suggests the docents invite visitors to imitate the pose of a sculpture, and use other senses in their verbal descriptions.

Blind Art Lovers Make The Most Of Museum Visits With ‘InSight’ Tours

Photos: Raquel Zaldivar/NPR

This is just **begging** PETA to come protest on your front steps.

The volunteer Docents want to bring live cochineal insects into the Museum on a daily basis so that they can squish them in front of patrons to demonstrate a dyeing process related to a very textile-heavy exhibition we’re having on the history of the color red. 

The head of Exhibitions, the Registrar and most of all the Collections Manager are flabbergasted that someone would suggest INTENTIONALLY bringing live insects into a gallery space.

 Apparently we need to start covering Integrated Pest Management during docent training.