Sunday, January 8, 2012

Zoo Volunteer Interview: Bruce shares his zoo tails

Welcome to Zoo Tails first official interview feature! We recently had the opportunity to talk to Bruce Lane, an experienced zoo volunteer. Thanks to Bruce for answering our questions and sharing some of his zoo tails with us!

ZT: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and what do you do?

Bruce: Born and raised in Berkeley, CA, moved to Washington state in 1993 with my then-girlfriend, now-wife (of 18 years). By trade and training, I'm an electronics engineering technician, specializing in radio and telecommunications. I currently work for the state of Washington, civil service, state highway patrol.

This may seem an odd contrast, given my interest in animals, but think about it: What better way to offset a fairly 'sterile' field of work? ;-)

ZT: What zoo do you consider your "home" zoo?

Bruce: I'm fortunate to have two which are local: Pt. Defiance, in Tacoma, and Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

ZT: Where did your love of zoos or animals originate?

Bruce: I don't know whether I can point to any single event which sparked it. I grew up with pets, of course, mostly dogs or cats, but at one point I was fortunate enough to have a hybrid owl (part screech, part great-horned) as a companion. Unfortunately, we had to hand him off to a local wildlife center in the early 70's. He was healthy enough, and we got along great, but he would attack my father on sight. Even if they had gotten along, the laws concerning keeping captive raptors had changed in a way which would have precluded my keeping him.

    Ever since, my interest in animals, particularly exotics and birds, has done nothing but grow. When I reached adulthood, I finally had the curiosity and means to indulge this interest by traveling to zoos and oceanariums all over the country, including several in Mexico and the Caribbean. My primary critters-of-interest now are birds, particularly raptors, dolphins, and anything small and furry which enjoys being held. ;-)

ZT: How did you get involved in volunteering?

Bruce: A friend of mine was in the Navy at the same time my early interest in dolphins was peaking. He phoned me one evening while he was on leave, raving about how he'd found this fantastic spot where the trainer had not only taken him in as a volunteer, but was letting him swim with the dolphins almost on a daily basis.

    Naturally, I was excited about it, but I had other commitments at the time. Finally, after the third or fourth call like this, I got jealous and made travel plans. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I've volunteered on and off at various places, including the Oklahoma City Zoo and Magic Mountain in California (back when they had a contract dolphin show). Most recently, my wife and I have found a friend in Joanne Bentley, of ',' and she's been coaching us in how to work with raptors. And, in 2010, I took a four-day captive raptor care workshop at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. First time I've had a bald eagle on my glove. Gorgeous bird, but heavy!

    We've also been fortunate to have numerous interactive experiences, both paid for and freebies, with tiger cubs, a Canadian lynx, and more birds than I can count.

ZT: That sounds amazing! What did you take away from your volunteering experience?

Bruce: I've taken away, lots! Just as one example, I've come to realize the general public has not the slightest idea how much HARD work goes into being a zookeeper, a marine animal trainer, or even a volunteer. This is probably because the public tends not to see anything but the end result -- the handler with a magnificent hawk on their glove, calmly answering questions and basking in the attention. The dolphin or whale trainer, giving a near-invisible hand signal to their charges, who then display amazing acrobatics. The cat handler, calmly walking five hundred pounds of Bengal Tiger through a crowded cafeteria without a care in the world.

    They have NO IDEA what it takes to even get close to such things! I do. I've done everything from shovel poop to answering questions after a show.

    If I had to point to ONE thing I've learned, and one thing only, it would be: ANYone who does any serious work with animals, no matter if it's in a zoo, aviary, oceanarium or wildlife preserve, deserves a lot of respect. It is truly a labor of love!

ZT: Couldn't agree with you more! Of course I have to ask, what is your favorite zoo that you've been to?

Bruce: Can't point to any single place. I've got multiple favorites, depending on the context.

    For forward-thinking and sheer we-can-do-it guts: The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Rarely have I seen a healthier collection of critters, a more caring staff, or a better assortment of interactive and educational opportunities.

    For aviaries: So far, it's a toss-up between SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove (outstanding interactive opportunities, with everything from sparrows to turacos), and the huge walk-through aviary at the San Diego Zoo.

    For overall photo opportunities: The Minnesota Zoo has some of the most photographer-friendly exhibits I've ever seen. Woodland Park is a close second, but they could learn quite a bit from Minnesota.

    For dolphin-interactive opportunities: Xel Ha, south of Cancun, Mexico, is my current favorite.

    For land animal interaction, I have to point to the West Coast Game Park, Bandon, Oregon.

ZT: I haven't experienced many zoos on the west side of the country so it's great to learn more about them. Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!

We're always looking for individuals to interview and share their stories with us so please feel free to comment below with any suggestions!