The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) announced that The Wilds has been recognized with the 2019 Volunteer Engagement Award for innovation in diversity and inclusion for the facility’s Outstanding Wilds Learning (OWLs) program. The Wilds received this national award during AZA’s September conference in New Orleans.
The AZA Volunteer Engagement Award recognizes outstanding achievement in volunteer program development and engaging volunteers in the overall mission and operation of the organization.
The Wilds’ OWLs program is a seasonal volunteer program designed for conservation-minded teenagers, ages 13 through 17 years, who have a passion for conserving nature, conservation education and research. Opportunities for volunteerism in Appalachia Ohio are scarce, especially for teenagers. The Wilds’ education team members recognized the need in the community for a safe, positive volunteer environment that would be beneficial for local students and also for The Wilds.
The OWLs program began in 2015 with eight participants, who focused on guest interactions at the facility’s Carnivore Center and Lake Trail, engaging visitors with activities and biofacts. The program has since grown in participants and opportunities. In 2019, the OWLs program has welcomed 38 participants, who can choose to follow an education track, research track (assisting the Wildlife Ecology and Restoration Ecology staff) or both.
Education OWLS are responsible for positively impacting guest experiences by engaging visitors at the Carnivore Center, Lake Trail, the Johnson Center and the Kids Discovery Field Station. With each interaction, these OWLS work to engage guests and inspire a passion for conservation, preservation and education about habitats and wildlife.
Research OWLs spend a majority of their time participating in field work alongside The Wilds’ Restoration Ecology and Wildlife Ecology staff. Research OWLs help Restoration Ecology with the removal of invasive species, like autumn olive and tree of heaven, to assist in re-establishing habitats for native animals and insects. The OWLs assist Wildlife Ecology with reintroductions of endangered American burying beetles onto Wilds’ property, tagging and releasing Eastern Plains garter snakes and counting and recording hellbender sightings.
This program is exceptional in that it provides unique career experiences for teens with a serious interest in nature while meeting the conservation and education goals of The Wilds.
“We are very proud of our teen volunteer program and see first-hand the importance of each volunteer, and even more importantly we see the effect our program can have in shaping future conservationists,” said Dr. Jan Ramer, Vice President of The Wilds. “No matter what career path our OWLs choose, I feel certain that the unique experience they had at The Wilds will help them to lead and inspire by connecting people with wildlife.”
“The Wilds has excelled in building the innovative OWLs program to connect volunteers of diverse audiences to conservation,” said AZA President and CEO Dan Ashe. “AZA values immensely the tens of thousands of loyal, enthusiastic volunteers whose hard work helps us achieve our mission to protect wildlife.”
To learn more about AZA’s Honors and Awards, please visit https://www.aza.org/honors-awards.