Trail Host Pros: The Zoo’s Most Popular Volunteer Position

On your recent visit to the Zoo, perhaps you encountered a friendly, green-polo-wearing individual on one of our trails. They may have just said “Hello!”or perhaps you engaged in a conversation about the curious critters in the habitat behind them. They were there to answer your questions about the animals, or simply direct you to your next destination within the Zoo.

That individual is a member of the Virginia Zoo“Zoo Crew,” our adult volunteer program, and they were filling the most volunteered for position here: Trail Host.

Trail Hosts are our on-the-ground interpreters here at the Zoo. They play a critical role in guest engagement on a daily basis, ensuring that visitors to the zoo have an opportunity to learn more about our animals than what you can read on a sign. These volunteers can be found along every trail and in every exhibit space, including our Asia and Africa trails, the World of Reptiles building, and in our ZooFarm area.

Sometimes, they’ll bring a unique biofact out with them to share, like an awesome snake shed, or a replica red panda skull with surprisingly sharp teeth! Other times, you may see them posted up by their  favorite animal, watching the behaviors and interpreting what it might represent to interested guests, or pointing out a hidden creature that you might otherwise walk right past.  

Of our over 170 active Zoo Crew volunteers in 2019, 111 of them have logged hours out and about as a trail host, more than for any other single role that volunteers take on here as part of the Zoo Crew team. Together, they’ll have provided nearly 2,500 hours of on-site interpretation by year’s end.

For a more complete picture of what our trail hosts put in to their service here, it’s important to recognize that becoming a trail host and staying active and knowledgeable requires continued training and learning throughout the year to keep up with our animals.

Trail Hosts complete“Interpretation 101″ training to better understand how to communicate all of the fascinating facts and conservation messages that they are eager to share with guests.

After training, our new interpreters choose an area to focus their learning on, such as our Asia Trail, Africa Trail, or World of Reptiles exhibits. They spend time getting to know what species can be found in that area, and who our animals are.

Onboarding hosts then work with experienced Mentor Trail Hosts over a series of shifts before they head out on their own to share their passion and knowledge with our visitors. They’ll continue to learn from and share ideas with each other in quarterly Trail Host meetings, and participate in online learning opportunities as well to continually keep their animal knowledge sharp.

For our Trail Hosts, the time spent training and out on the trails is rewarding. Our team frequently shares stories about the funny, sweet, and amazing moments they’ve been able to experience by combining their love of the animals with a passion for sharing their knowledge with guests.

They’ve witnessed unique interactions between our animals, brightened somebody’s day by pointing out a hidden sloth or red panda, and opened minds to the many ways in which we can contribute to a better world for wildlife.

They are ambassadors for not only the animals at the Zoo, but also their fellow Zoo Crew members hard at work behind the scenes doing a variety of other important tasks to keep us running.

Want to join in the fun? We’re always looking to grow our program, and will be taking in more volunteers at the start of 2020.