Mary Ann Prag has lived in the Lake Balboa neighborhood for 28 years and, she says, "loves it." When she's not spending time in , she's volunteering as a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo, answering strange questions like: Why are flamingoes pink?
"I spend most of the time at the zoo," Prag told Encino Patch recently. Prag said she used to work as an occupational therapist at a Northridge hospital, but when she retired, she felt she had to "retire into something," rather than just stop working. That "something" became the Los Angeles Zoo docent program, where she has volunteered for the past 13 years.
Prag participated in a 23-week training program at the zoo that, she says, "was harder to get through than my masters." She now spends about 80 hours a month volunteering (far in excess of the 100 hours a year minimum that docents must pledge).
Prag's week usually consists of conducting outreach tours, which, as well as school visits, often includes teaching people with special needs, as well as those residing in senior centers and assisted-living facilities.
"Anyone who has a difficult time coming to the zoo, we come to them," Prag said. "We have an interactive program. We tell them a little about the animals we bring with us, and they can touch them if they want to."
While the zoo is well-stocked with large animals like the giraffe, Prag favors the more portable creatures like snakes, guinea pigs, hedgehogs and bearded dragons (a type of lizard) when she goes on an outreach visit.
"We used to have a chicken, that was a favorite," Prag said. She recalled one incident with a chicken called Lucy who was a big hit at a retirement home. One resident took a particular shine to her and told Prag it was because she used to own chickens herself.
A staff member later told Prag, "You know, she hasn't spoken in two months."
As well as Lucy the chicken, Prag also enjoys working with guinea pigs.
"I like to explain how they get the name of guinea pig," she said. "Sailors used to take them from South America back to the Netherlands, where they sold them for a guinea, which is like our quarter. Also, they squeal like a little pig when they get excited," she added.
When Prag isn't on an outreach program, she's working at the zoo, answering questions like "Why are flamingoes pink?"
"It's the shrimp that they eat out in the wild," she said. "In the zoo we supplement that with a mineral that enhances the colors."
Prag says that she enjoys spending time volunteering at the zoo.
"It makes me feel very good," she said. "One of the things I wanted to do when I retired was feel like I made a difference. Teaching something, showing something, making someone smile, that's what makes me feel good. I’m able to give people a fun experience and an educational experience.
"After marrying my husband, this is the second best thing I've done."
With National Volunteer Week just around the corner, animal-loving Encino Patch readers may want to learn more about enrolling in the docent program at the Los Angeles Zoo. The program, run by the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), currently has 700 docents who, between them, give 80,000 hours to the zoo each year. To find out more, go to www.lazoo.org, and enroll for the orientation meeting on July 28.