Nature Nurture

LA Zoo docents Mary Ann Prag and Mayer Cohen are wild about sharing the wonders of nature.

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    Elyse Glickman

After a career as an occupational therapist, 13 years ago Lake Balboa resident Mary Ann Prag was planning to retire. But fate intervened. She saw something about a meeting for becoming a zoo docent in the LA Zoo’s magazine. “I went to the meeting, did the docent tour and realized right away that this was it,” she recalls. Mayer Cohen of Sherman Oaks followed a similar path. After retiring from corporate management in 1993, his calling to the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association docent program came through the Volunteer Opportunities section in the Los Angeles Times.

“It sounded like a wonderful opportunity, especially given my own experiences at the zoo with my kids and grandkids,” Mayer says. “I enjoy this more than my old job!

Part of the zoo’s mission is ‘nurturing   wildlife and enriching the human spirit.’ My own spirit has been enriched coming here every Thursday.”

Mary Ann and Mayer make it clear that being part of the docent corps involves a commitment far beyond showing up a few hours a week. The 23-week provisional course is accredited through UCLA Extension and involves a mid-term and a final. Docents are also required to receive continued education on new exhibits, zoo babies and other developments through meetings, classes and weekly fact sheets.  

“The animals are moving differently, changing and evolving. It is a wondrous place.”

It is not just about giving 90-minute guided tours. “I usually come in twice a week and am enrolled in special needs outreach, where we take small animals and items from the zoo out to handicapped children’s schools, nursing and retirement homes,” Mary Ann details. She is also involved in the Patch program geared toward the Scouts. The kids learn about various animals and then design and exhibit about their animal of choice to earn a patch for their sashes.

Mayer, who has also volunteered as a Special Olympics coach, particularly enjoys making the zoo experience truly inclusive. “I have conducted special tours for special needs children and their families,” he says. He has also done one-on-one tours for autistic children. “That has brought me an added dimension of personal satisfaction.”

Mary Ann notes her most joyful moments come with spontaneous reactions from children interacting with the animals or witnessing something they perhaps have only read about in their classrooms. Mayer, meanwhile, sizes up docent volunteerism by citing its dynamic, changeable nature.

“When you compare the LA Zoo to museums and other cultural places, what  makes the zoo exciting is that something is different every time you come in,” he states.