We Love Volunteers

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Volunteer Andrea Ortiz washes one of many tortoise totes.

Volunteer Andrea Ortiz washes one of many tortoise totes.

As soon as San Diego Zoo staff arrived at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas back in March 2009, we started receiving e-mails from people interested in volunteering their time to help the tortoises. We knew that starting a volunteer program would not only benefit us here at the DTCC, but it would also help us spread our conservation message throughout the Las Vegas area.

We decided to start a volunteer program that would allow us to “hire” volunteers after going through a stringent interview process and background check. Volunteers also must show us their current driver’s license, as well as proof of health insurance in order to be allowed on site. We now have a volunteer base of almost 20 people who work here on a regular basis. Their experiences and backgrounds are diverse, as are their reasons for wanting to volunteer: some want to help because they are natives to the area, while others are looking for hands-on experience and plan to pursue a career as a biologist.

Our first volunteer, Alan Croft, was retired and wanted to do something useful with his time. He volunteered at the DTCC for several days every week in the hot summer sun, and he was such a hard worker that we had to make him go home every night because if we didn’t, we are fairly certain he would have worked straight through to the next day! We ended up hiring him as a seasonal research assistant, and now that the season is over, he is “retired” again.

Volunteers are a huge help with our daily tasks, and they have been asked to do just about everything from feeding tortoises to cleaning bathrooms. It’s not always the most glamorous of jobs, but it all needs to get done to make sure we are operating the best we can to serve the hundreds of tortoises we care for each day. Following are some of our volunteer tasks:

Feeding tortoises: During the spring and summer months, we have 4 staff members who each spend about 15 hours every week just feeding the tortoises here at the DTCC! With up to five volunteers helping us, that number is cut down to less than five hours of feeding time per week for each staff member; this is a HUGE help because it frees up the staff to take care of so many other tasks we need to accomplish. This is definitely a favorite task of our volunteers, because the tortoises are always happy to see the food bucket coming their way!

Tote washing: This is one of the most common and needed tasks we have for volunteers. Totes are used daily to transport incoming tortoises to quarantine, to move tortoises around the site for a variety of reasons, and to soak tortoises to provide them with a good drink of water. During the busy season, we can accumulate up to 60 dirty totes per day. Each tote can only be used for one tortoise, then it needs to be scrubbed and disinfected using a multi-step protocol to ensure that diseases do not spread among our tortoises. This is a time-consuming job that absolutely cannot get done without our volunteers! If the staff had to wash all the totes ourselves, in addition to our other tasks, we would be here all day and night!

Burrow construction and repair: Another important job we give to our volunteers is to dig new burrows for incoming tortoises and to cover existing burrows with extra dirt to keep the tortoises safe from the summer heat and winter chill. Digging burrows is an ongoing, back-breaking task, but it needs to be done every day to ensure that the tortoises are safe and comfortable. We have approximately 500 burrows that need to be at least visually inspected each day, and many of them need repair at some point during the season.

Data entry: With so many tortoises on site, we have a lot of data entry to do to keep up with them. This task allows us to know where they are, which other tortoise(s) they live with, what their health is like, and if there are any health or behavioral issues we need to address. We collect two pages of data on every single tortoise that comes through our front door, and the volunteers help by inputting all the information into a database. We are responsible for doing quality control, and with training, we have found that the volunteers do a great job with this daunting task.

To ensure that our volunteers are fully trained in the areas in which they will be working, this month we started a Volunteer Education Class. It is still a work in progress, but we intend to provide detailed training to every volunteer that covers all of the DTCC’s protocols and procedures. We will cover a wide range of topics, from the proper way to feed tortoises to where to put their recyclable goods from lunch! We feel strongly that if we put time into our volunteers, they will be better able to help us. We’ve done two training sessions so far, and they went really well!

The Through the Lens group lends some hands!

The Through the Lens group lends some hands!

Sometimes we receive requests from groups that are interested in volunteering to help us complete a project or to do basic chores. Our first volunteer group was with a program called “Through the Lens.” This amazing group of young adults is getting the experience of a lifetime learning about the conservation of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. They are taking photographs of wild desert tortoises and their native habitat and sharing their experiences and perceptions by publishing a book of their photographs. The group’s director and mentor, David Lamfrom, from the National Parks Conservation Association, was thrilled to offer the group an opportunity to lend a hand at the DTCC and to see desert tortoise conservation first hand. The group members and their families helped us by disinfecting totes, feeding tortoises, and even moving some hatchlings into new pens. We hope to do more events like this in 2010!

We are very grateful to the DTCC volunteers for the time and effort they put into each day that they are here working with us. Truthfully, we could not do it without them. Thank you, volunteers!

If you or a group with which you are affiliated is interested in volunteering at the DTCC in 2010, please contact us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

Note: We also have volunteer opportunities at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. Here’s more info…