It’s a Zoo out there, for real.

by Leila

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As the first group of the 363 school children that were set to arrive this morning stepped off the bus and I was directed (my very first real day) to lead them up the path and on into The Living Desert, my heart leapt to my throat. I was working hard to hold back the tears that were coming right along with the emotion that I felt. “I’m this fortunate, I really get to do this, it’s really happening.”

After 10 weeks of education on all things desert from; the amazing plant life, to rock hard geology, the magical desert oasis, to the tiniest of critters those bugs, to birds, ecology, North America to Africa, to learning the skills of interpretation and all those fantastic animals in-between, I am a certified docent at The Living Desert and I could not be more thrilled.

I questioned over and over if I was doing the right thing with my time, I’ve never been very good at understanding conservation efforts and am not the best fit for a learning environment. I’ve always wondered how it was I actually made it through school with an actual diploma. A book learner I am not. Also my heart has always been and will always beat the strongest for underprivileged children.

Bill and I’s very last trip, before we decided we were going to REALLY move to the desert, we visited The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. I said to him that day, “I wonder if they have a volunteer program?” I was stuck, the beauty and peace of this corner of creation did something to my spirit. I felt drawn to dig deeper, so I did. I barely made it in applying only two days before the cutoff date for the year and having no idea if I’d make it through the interview process. Thankfully they are pretty accepting and delighted to have just about anyone help do the job of sharing this place with others.

I was most certainly the shy girl in class, once again feeling that new kid in town vulnerability that I did at 15 years of age in Napa, something I really never recovered from. (Seriously what is it about flipping High School?) Never raising my hand, rarely asking a question knowing I was with, retired teaches, flight attendants, lawyers, a semiconductor designer/engineer, a broadcaster, deputy sheriff… basically 16 brainiacs who love and know a lot about the desert outdoors. Come to find out, they are a group of amazing people and after several weeks of shyness I was urged to come out of my shell and enjoy and absorb it all to the fullest. So I did. Thank God.

The 2015 Docent Graduating Class, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that remembers everyone’s name. (:


You see, we moved here because Bill and I both are obsessed with being outside. We are not outdoor enthusiast/sporty type people in any way shape or form (henceforth the lack of fitting in in Bend) but we will do all we can, at all times to be out of doors. Quickly into my docent training I realized, this is a job outside in the amazing beauty of creation, there are exotic animals surrounding and I get to guide people around and answer questions about it all. For years now I’ve told my husband I need to work at an information booth because I love giving people helpful guidance and understanding. This zoo thing is a hysterically perfect fit for me!

The Grevy’s Zebra. Yep, they are endangered. How’d you like to wake up one day and find your species being wiped out?

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Then there was the day I did my first test/presentation. As I was setting up to present to my peers and share with them what I had learned about Endangered Species, before the 16 of them arrived, up the path I could hear the very loud and joyful chatter of a classroom of children. They walked right up to me and their teacher prompted them to ask what I was there to talk about. I melted like butter and the heart in the throat, it began this very moment. I realized, there was a hand in this fit, that was so much greater than I ever even thought possible.

Bill and I literally fell madly, passionately and deeply in love serving in Mexicali Mexico for a week doing mission/humanitarian work. We were on separate teams and as the group reconvened in the evenings we would share with one another the things about these beautifully brown-skinned children that we fell in love with each day. We’d argue over who had the cuter little girl in their group and share the joys of what loving on these kids did to our souls. It was an extremely rich week camping in the middle of an enormous dirty desert field and having no showers to cleanse that dust. We were hooked, we loved each other by the end of it and we’d gained a tenderness for Mexico that’s never departed and more specifically for its children. Every time we’ve visited since I’m not sure what we’ve enjoyed more, gazing at the beautiful ocean or loving on the beautiful little faces that are filled big huge eyes of hope.

It dawned on me that day, with those 26 first graders, as I did all I could to make their day a wee bit more special, “oh my gosh, I get to do this, this perfectly fabulous place is daily filled with Mexican school children.”

I was bursting today. As my leader asked which area I’d like to be posted in throughout the day I emphatically told her, “I will do anything you want, I’ll learn any area you need help, but please in the morning, can I please be on the team that meets the buses?” Even as I write this I am so overcome with joy, I am so incredibly thankful for this time in my life. Here I was so afraid of doing something that wasn’t making the difference in the life of a human in anyway. I’ve now come to realize that loving my classmates, knowing them and just being their friend is a priceless touch. I know that because they’ve done it for me. And these children, just wow, they make it so easy.

The Living Desert Zoo is filled with hundreds of animals that are adapted for the desert, they are beautiful and each unique and special in their very own way. We have a plethora of Endangered Species that I would personally love to share with you and why this matters. There are gardens galore that are full of plants that’ve helped us live since the dawn of time.

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If you ever visit, take the time to interact with the docents, your experience will be 100 times richer for it. There is more education that you could ever want to learn available and you might be surprised by some of it. I urge my guests to look up, look around and breathe it in. I do it every day that I am there, never wanting to take for granted this wonderful opportunity.

Again, I am now an official Certified Docent at The Living Desert and I praise the creator for the beauty of this unique part of his creation. I humbly thank Him, that I am a lucky one, I get to love on people and children every single day that I am there and share with them what a Fossa actually is.

As I said, that heart for underprivileged children, it’s been there a very long time, it’s 29 years now since Bill & I fell in love in Mexicali. Then I went and read this book, yes it messed me up, in a good way. It solidified that heart for the children of this world, they matter, they matter so very much.

I consider it a great blessing that I get to touch a few once a week in a crazy beautiful place.