June 09, 2016

By Eve Cooney, Youth Programs Coordinator,
Laura Seger, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator

Being a teenager is difficult even under the most idyllic circumstances. Finding steadfast friends can be a real challenge for teens—unless they come to the Zoo, where through the Zoo ALIVE program, young volunteers from all over the region develop deep friendships as they connect to nature and each other.

In 2005, we launched Zoo ALIVE—the Saint Louis Zoo’s volunteer leadership program for high school age students (ALIVE stands for Active Leaders In Volunteer Education). Our thinking then was that we needed a program to inspire young conservationists and channel the energies of teens who were too young to be interns at the Zoo. 

We never realized that this program would not only foster a deep appreciation for wildlife, but strong connections among the volunteers.  Approximately 75 teens participate annually in Zoo ALIVE, but more than 430 alums have completed the one to three year-long program, which involves everything from staffing an Earth Day activity table to helping supervise kids at Camp KangaZoo. 

Many Zoo ALIVE alums not only return for visits, but have gone on to become professional animal care staff and educators at zoos across the nation. Some have joined the staff of the Saint Louis Zoo.  Others use their experience to get into top universities, including some Ivy League institutions.  One graduate cited his involvement with a Zoo-sponsored reintroduction of an endangered animal (the American burying beetle) on his college application to Brown University. He believes that experience led Brown to accept him, and he is forever grateful that he spent a year with Zoo ALIVE—most of all, for the friends he made.  

After completing an application process, teens must volunteer twice a month and attend a monthly meeting. We also offer continuing education about native wildlife and wild places, and let them experience what it’s like to be in a field station with few creature comforts.  Each year, they have an opportunity to go on field trips around the region—camping at a nearby park or floating down a local river. Zoo ALIVE Teen Volunteers have also visited archaeological sites in Belize, checked out rain forests in Costa Rica, and in 2017, they will go to Panama on another twelve day field ecology course.  

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, a group of Zoo ALIVE teens have helped reintroduce an endangered species back into the wild!  They diligently helped cared for hundreds of endangered American burying beetles. Then on a hot June day in a prairie in Southwest Missouri, dug holes and placed the carcass of a quail and a pair of beetles in each cavity.  This is the fifth year the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation has reintroduced beetles into that prairie. Last year, approximately 400 beetles were reintroduced. In 2014, approximately 350 beetles were reintroduced. In 2013, approximately 600 beetles were reintroduced—more than double the 236 beetles reintroduced in the same area in 2012. The 2012 reintroduction marked the first time ever this beetle had been reintroduced in Missouri.  

 All this “roughing it” has led to the teens’ building tight social groups—something that has been difficult for some of them because they are the science-focused, self-described “nerds” in their high schools. Others are homeschooled, or on the autism spectrum and so seen as “different.”   Zoo ALIVE teen volunteers accept everyone because many of them have been treated as outsiders in other social settings. We’ve been amazed at the compassion and care they have shown each other. They are consistently a kind and compassionate bunch.

And the culmination of all that bonding is an annual ritual we started a few years ago—the Zoo ALIVE sophomores and juniors plan a graduation ceremony and prom for the seniors. This year, 28 teens showed up dressed elegantly for their prom. Some relished the chance to go to prom a second time; others had not attended their own high school proms. Some were homeschoolers who had no opportunity to go to prom.  After the prom, which included dinner, a dance and a photo session, the teens stayed overnight at the Exploration Outpost on the Zoo’s campus and enjoyed a private night hike on grounds. 

Another great aspect of this program is the diversity, in race, socioeconomic status and more. This allows teens to meet young people they might never have encountered. Dozens of schools and neighborhoods in the bi-state area are represented.

At this year’s graduation, these young people from vastly different backgrounds shared their memories of the program and talked about the importance of Zoo ALIVE.  They gave testimonies about how the program has supported them during tough times and how they will remember the experience--forever.

And they do.