Roaring with Purpose: Volunteering at the Cincinnati Zoo

Posted November 27, 2023 by Kara Rhodes

It takes a village to run one of the top zoos in the United States, and our village is fortunate enough to have a troop of individuals who aren’t on the payroll but come in day after day simply because they want the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden to thrive! These dedicated and valued 450 individuals constitute our Adult Volunteer Program occupying 38 different roles within every department. These positions range from interacting with visitors, maintaining garden beds, diving to clean animal pools, remotely monitoring animals behind-the-scenes, and so much more! The impact of our volunteers cannot be overstated and can be seen on every inch of the grounds and in the smiles of our visitors.

Although it would take a 500-page novel to acknowledge all the accomplishments of this group, we can’t miss an opportunity to highlight a few of the areas where Adult Volunteers shine!

volunteer showing an ostrich egg to a child


Countless visitors stroll through our entrance each year and ask, “Where is the Botanical Garden?” Thanks to the contributions of 135 talented volunteers in our Horticulture Department, we can proudly say our internationally celebrated and recognized botanical garden is beautifully displayed across the entire Zoo grounds. In addition, there are several offsite areas that benefit from horticulture volunteers including, Bowyer Farm in Mason, OH, where they assist with the Native Plant program and sales, wetland restoration, and animal feed harvesting. Every year, our horticulture volunteers:

  • Help plant and maintain over 50,000 annual and tropical plants
  • Assist in planting over 100,000 tulip bulbs
  • Mulch over 50 display beds and surrounding areas
  • Pull “a gazillion” weeds on site and in offsite locations like Rockdale Academy Urban Learning Garden and Bowyer Farm
  • Document over 2,500 pollinators in the garden
  • Deliver weekly browse (harvested twigs and high-growing vegetation) to the animal department
  • Pot thousands of perennials and shrub plugs

While they are not afraid to get their hands dirty, they also spend plenty of time interacting with the visitors admiring their hard work. One volunteer stated, “Several times, children have asked what I was doing when I was standing out, punching data for pollinator watch into my phone or iPad. I think there are some future ‘citizen scientists’ out there.” These volunteers help elevate the Horticulture Department by sharing stories with our visitors and encouraging them to benefit local wildlife through gardening.

volunteers working in a garden


crew volunteers standing at a booth

At our Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), over 100 volunteers have the opportunity to assist conservation science in action. Logging over 8,000 hours so far in 2023, CREW volunteers have increased capacity for our scientists, allowing them more time to focus on data analysis and growing work on their four signature projects. Volunteers have processed over 30,000 polar bear fecal samples, provided the highest level of care to cats in our domestic cat colony, and produced thousands of tubes of media. Of the 8,000 hours listed above, 40% of those came from a group of Zoo Volunteer Observers, affectionately called “ZVOs.” Their volunteer work involves remotely viewing animals via webcams who need 24-hour observation and noting behavioral changes for the animal care staff. In 2023, 46 volunteers participated in 10 birth and neonate watches.

Visitor Engagement

One of our most visible groups of volunteers are the ones who focus their time and attention on interacting with guests and enhancing the overall visitor experience. Also known as “Volunteer Ambassadors,” they span multiple different departments that focus on guest interpretation and interaction. Maybe you have had a chance to interact with them in front of an animal habitat, in a contact yard or maybe even at one of the carts strategically placed in different areas. In 2023 so far, Ambassadors have had over 350,000 meaningful interactions with visitors. During these interactions, ambassadors inspire visitors about the wildlife and wild places we strive to protect and provide simple calls to action that help them bring our mission off grounds and into their homes. Jane Goodall said it best: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you must decide what kind of difference you want to make.” This incredibly talented group can say with confidence that every day they volunteer, they are making a positive impact.

Volunteers are also instrumental when assisting with Zoo events, education programs, and social media outreach. In 2023, volunteers logged over 1,100 hours spanning fundraisers, plant sales, family events, and even passing out treats during HallZOOween and our Easter celebration. Our volunteer summer camp aides worked with over 50 summer campers, giving them one-on-one care and attention during tough moments to ensure they were able to finish out and make the most of their camp experience.

Another facet of our volunteer community outreach is our volunteer photographers, who take a large majority of the photos that followers see posted on our social media accounts. Thus far in 2023, these photographers have spent over 1,800 hours taking thousands of photos, which have been seen online by over 8 million people worldwide.

volunteer photographers posing in front of a barn
volunteer talking to children

Animal Welfare

volunteer diver cleaning manatee springs pool

All volunteers contribute to the welfare of the animals in our care directly and indirectly. Whether a volunteer is sharing stories with visitors, diving in our animal pools to keep them safe and clean, or creating enrichment devices, numerous keeper hours are freed up. With this time, keeper staff can focus on developing husbandry standards, advancing enrichment programs, and pushing the envelope with animal training. Victoria McGee, Zoological Manager of Primates, gives a wonderful example of this when talking about our gorilla, Ndume. “Whether it is celebrating World Gorilla Day, supporting animals that are new to the zoo, or keeping an eye on guest behavior to support animal needs, the volunteer team does it all! Our team is especially grateful for this support for Ndume, who has come such a long way over the past several years. His social and welfare adjustment has been a full Zoo effort, and the volunteer team has really contributed to that.”

Who are these humans who selflessly donate their time to our incredible organization? A group of individuals with wildly different backgrounds. There are retired high-level executives and influential attorneys, scuba instructors and stay-at-home parents, groomers and yoga teachers, accountants and cake decorators, among many other professions. A love for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the animals and the people here, and the wildlife and wild places they represent brings this diverse group together. The substantial impact of this incredible group continues to make a difference on grounds and in our communities, but maybe most importantly has a considerable impact on the volunteers themselves. One of our greatest joys is hearing about the program’s impact on them.

If you are passionate about wildlife, wild places, and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, please consider joining our adult volunteer team. Available volunteer opportunities vary from season to season and are updated on the volunteer page of the webpage often.

Volunteer at the Cincinnati Zoo

volunteers posing for photo overlooking giraffe habitat

“Volunteers are literally the difference between getting through the day and actually advancing our industry. Volunteers are the secret ingredient that allows our Zoo to call itself one of the best in the world, and our Zoo would be a mere shadow of itself without [their] dedication and commitment to our mission.” – Wendy Rice, Head Africa Keeper

“[The Volunteer Photographers] are absolutely invaluable to us, and we are so appreciative of them volunteering their time and skills to the Zoo. They all have such a love of this place, and it shows through their photos.” – Amy LaBarbara, Marketing Manager

Our dedicated group of volunteers are available at a moment’s notice to assist 24/7 with birth and neonate observations. The data they generate is an integral part of successful breeding programs here and at zoos around the world!” – Dave & Linda Stentz, ZVO Supervisors

“Zoo volunteers are fountains of great information! I loved seeing and talking to the zoo volunteers!” – Online Visitor Survey

“Spending time as a volunteer here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I have found a group of like-minded people who are all working together to further the zoo’s mission. I look forward to every volunteer shift.” -Michael B., Volunteer Since 2014

“You don’t know how much your work means to the Horticulture department.” – Jerome Stenger, Senior Horticulturist