We walk through the Nature Trail near the San Francisco Zoo’s Koret Animal Resource Center. Owls, vultures, hawks and falcons sit perched on a grassy rise, admiring the people who walk by admiring them. The Animal Resource Center, or A.R.C., is home to the zoo’s educational outreach animals. And outside, a teen volunteer is talking to a group of younger kids and their parents about the Great Horned owl.
The zoo’s youth volunteer programs are training local teens to handle live animals from the educational outreach program and in addition the volunteers help educate zoo visitors about the life history of these animals and the conservation threats they face in the wild. For many of these kids this is a first step to a lifetime of environmental stewardship and a new-found love of science.
Each year over 130 local youths go through the zoo’s volunteer programs. The programs are designed to teach kids about conservation but most importantly they train the volunteers to pass on that knowledge. “Teaching city children about nature and the importance of habitat health not only to wild areas but to themselves as well.” said one volunteer program alumni, “I’ll never forget the faces of awe on both children and adults as they got to see, touch and learn about animals such as opossums, chinchillas and ferrets. It felt great to be able to provide such an experience to the visitors of the Nature Trail.”
Jessa Barbelay, the zoo’s Education Department Supervisor, got her start here as a teen volunteer. “I had an appreciation for animals,” says Barbelay, “but I wasn’t very interested in science. But just the act of volunteering helped me break out of my shell and after being immersed in it, I realized that I really liked science and I liked sharing the information, which led me to a career in science education.”
Noelle Bidegainberry, the A.R.C. Intern and another former volunteer herself, takes us to meet one of the stars of the educational program, the San Francisco Zoo’s resident Peregrine Falcon, “Bella.” As we step into her aviary, Bella immediately becomes inquisitive, studying the new people who have entered her enclosure. For an animal that can claim to be the fastest in the world, I’m surprised at how calm and comfortable she is being handled. Bella is tasked with going out and representing her species as an ambassador bird. And one gets the sense that she is very good at her job.
It was not long ago that Peregrine Falcons were precariously perched at the edge of extinction. The widespread use of the pesticide DDT rippled up and down the food chain. For some raptors such as Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, the results were nearly catastrophic. DDT in their systems led to these birds laying thin shelled eggs. The chicks could not survive to hatching and without new generations replenishing the species, population numbers crashed. The falcon became the one of the first animals placed on the endangered species list.
Once DDT was banned in the 1970s, conservationists and bird lovers worked diligently to help save the falcon. And the work continues. Through captive breeding programs and other conservation efforts Peregrine Falcon numbers have rebounded in California and throughout much of the United States. In one of the great environmental success stories, the Peregrine Falcon was taken off the endangered species list in 1999.
“The story of the Peregrine Falcon helps us illustrate how conservation can work and have a direct influence and positive results,” says Bidegainberry, “Bella does a great job as an ambassador bird. Our hope is that when people meet Bella and hear her story, they are inspired to take conservation into their own hands.”
Watch our video segment “Science on the SPOT – Falcons Up Close” below: