Countless miles and smiles: Senior Zoomobile turns 35

Senior Zoomobile program marks 35th anniversary

"Ladies, how would you have liked to carry a baby for 20-22 months and have it weigh 225 pounds?"

"No thanks! Nine months was long enough!"

Laughter filled the room as a four-person team of volunteers greeted residents at a local adult care facility one recent morning. The Oregon Zoo's Senior Zoomobile, now in its 35th year, has reached tens of thousands of people throughout its history, bringing animals and inspiration to audiences who otherwise would not be able to access the zoo.

The inspiration goes both ways, according to Don and Linda Gertz, who have volunteered in the program for the last five years.

"It's enriching to us as well as to them," says Don. When the volunteers walk around the room carrying pelts, residents eagerly reach out to learn what bobcat fur feels like and to gauge the difference between sea otter and river otter pelts.

"Now, this is what we call a two-person pelt," Don says, as he and Linda bring a massive Amur tiger pelt slowly around the room to show curious residents.

Don, the leader of Thursday's team, presents a slideshow of zoo images that includes historic shots and recent photos of the elephant herd and lion cubs. He shares stories about what it takes to provide the best care for animals at the zoo, and he offers insights about what makes individual animals special.

Watching the photos, audience members gasp, "Oh! That's so cute!" and "Oh my, she's so beautiful."

"An all-volunteer led zoomobile program like this is almost unprecedented," says Grant Spickelmier, education curator. "And beyond its long history, the program's incredible popularity shows what a treasure it is for the community."

Though volunteers added a third day to their visit schedule a couple of years ago, registration still fills up within a matter of hours, as staff from facilities across the metro region vie for the opportunity to have the zoomobile visit. From October 2012 to May 2013, zoomobile teams made 94 presentations and reached 2,166 people.

"The zoomobile has a way of drawing people out and creating connections," Spickelmier says. "These experiences can help people remember their childhood visits to the zoo or the animals their family had growing up. For those who aren't verbal any more, the tactile experiences can be very powerful."

For each visit, zoomobile teams bring live animals that change weekly, such as a rabbit, rooster, chicken, rats and snake. This time, the animals included an albino ball python with pale yellow skin.

"That looks like an overgrown banana," one resident joked.

Volunteers and residents were still smiling as the zoomobile team packed up and headed out, another successful visit in the long history of this inspiring program.