Working with the wild ones


Photo courtesy of Philip Lopez

Lopez (far right) takes a picture with Goodall and other volunteers at the LA Zoo.

Holding up an ostrich egg in front of a crowd of wide-eyed children, Diamond Bar High School senior Phillip Lopez introduced the flock of ostriches in the enclosure behind him. With two years of experience as a Los Angeles Zoo student volunteer, Lopez is taking a step toward his dream of becoming a zoologist and working with animals.

As a student volunteer for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, Lopez is responsible for everything from introducing the zoo animals to guests to supervising mischief-prone creatures and helping kids with art projects. While giving visitors facts about the animals, he also keeps a close eye on any disturbances, such as guests dropping trash into any enclosures or orangutans playing with the caging mesh.  

“I’ve been an animal freak all my life,” Lopez said. “I really love anything about animals, especially wild animals, and I’ve been going to the zoo [from] around two years old.”

Lopez first decided to join the program in his sophomore year after looking for volunteer experiences that involve animals. After sending in his transcripts and undergoing an interview, he spent about three months in a training program learning about the zoo animals.

Recently,he helped work on a project for Roots and Shoots, an organization founded by Jane Goodall—the well-known primatologist who discovered much of what we know about chimpanzee behavior—to encourage environmental and conservation efforts by youth in their communities. In the project, the team installed a butterfly and ladybug garden designed to help pollinate plants in the area. The results were ultimately presented to Goodall.

As part of the project, the team established an open-book library where they provided books at community drop-off locations for visitors to borrow and add new books to the collection.

Although Lopez was not part of the three-person committee that presented the project, he was still able to meet Goodall in person.

“It was pretty inspiring to meet her since she has done a lot of the scientific world…and that is something I respect highly,” Lopez said.

Lopez volunteers at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park about 12 times a year.

He works approximately eight hours every time he makes the hour-long journey.

Although this year marks his last time working at the zoo as a student volunteer, due to the youth program’s age restrictions, Lopez said he plans to continue his fascination with animals in the future and in college.

He hopes this experience will help him  research animal behaviors in the wild, and he plans to continue pursuing this interest.

“Every time I go, it is something I enjoy greatly,” Lopez said. “I enjoy working at the zoo because it feels at home to me. I get nostalgic looking back to when I was just a child walking through the zoo in awe of the animals, and now I get to help people achieve that same feeling of awe.”