Whether she’s dressed as Chester Cheetah, feeding a snake, or taking students on an imaginary visit to Africa, Gerogiana Tarte can almost always be found at the Dallas Zoo. The Lake Highlands resident donates more than 20 hours of her time each week to the zoo, where she has volunteered since 1981.

A television commercial for the zoo first caught Tarte’s eye, so she and her daughter went to see what volunteering was all about. She attended training and has been a committed volunteer since, serving as a docent, outreach coordinator, speaker and resident-animal-in-costume.

“I’ve been the Easter Bunny, a witch, Chester Cheetah, a funny-looking bird and just about any other animal they could dress me up as,” Tarte says.

One of her favorite programs at the zoo is Imagine Africa, a five-year-old program that gives sixth grade students the opportunity to “visit Africa” for a day. She and other volunteers visit the classroom to tell the students about their planned trip and to give them their passports.

When the day arrives, the students come to the Wilds of Africa at the zoo and are issued binoculars and cameras. Tarte and other volunteers teach the students how to do field observation, and the students become research assistants for the day. They create journals with pictures and notes they take back to their schools.

“Imagine Africa is a wonderful program because you’ve got the children for the whole day and you really get to know them,” Tarte says. Because the program is so labor-intensive, only 18 schools participate each fall, she says.

Tarte also works with students through the zoo’s education outreach program, taking animals to the schools and presenting lessons on wildlife and nature. The program’s goal is to instill in the students an appreciation for animals and a desire to learn more.

Snakes, lizards, birds, chickens and armadillos are some of the many animals Tarte has carried in her car to visit the schools. She has fed cared for these animals once a week for 10 years.

She has also served as a docent and a member of the speakers bureau. She often attends meetings of civic organizations and other groups, telling them about the zoo and how they can become involved.

Tarte believes there is a volunteer job for everyone at the zoo, no matter what their talents, such as the seamstress who sewed puppets for the zoo, but not for a puppet show. The woman designed a “Momma Condor” puppet, which was used by the zoo keepers when feeding the baby condors.

“The people who work with the zoo are unique because they are all animal people,” Tarte says. “It’s like one big family.”

Sometimes, leading a tour of the zoo can be more difficult than simply discussing the eating habits of the ostrich with visitors. Tarte has guided groups from Sweden and Saudi Arabia in which nobody spoke English.

“I pointed at an animal and told them our name for it, and then they would tell me their name for it,” Tarte says.

Tarte is a dedicated volunteer who enjoys her work. She loves animals, enjoys the people with whom she works and appreciates the opportunities she has to see and do things that most people never do.

“One time, I cared for a 15-foot python and was able to build a nest for her. That’s something not many people have done,” she says.

As a zoo volunteer, Tarte can claim one additional bonus – the opportunity to see her daughter, who has been a zoo keeper for seven years and currently works at the Dallas Zoo.

Volunteer Opportunities at the Zoo

LouAnne Smith, volunteer coordinator for the Dallas Zoo and the Aquarium says she needs more dedicated volunteers, with a special need for educational volunteers and docents. Individuals who like working with people will enjoy these positions, teaching visitors about the animals.

Volunteers also are needed to serve as keeper aides, helping staff feed and care for the animals. A volunteer orientation will be Feb. 27. For information, call the zoo at 943-3110.

For more information on volunteer positions available at the zoo and other non-profit agencies, call the Volunteer Center of Dallas at 826-6767.