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Volunteer Spotlight: Zoo Senior Guides Gemma and Adriel

Adriel Brewster knows most of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium puffins by name. Gemma Duggins loves patting the goats. But for both teens, the biggest reward of being a Senior Guide volunteer is being able to change the way other people think about wildlife – and of course, spending hours with animals and people who care about them, every week.

“For me the Zoo and its community feels like a second home,” says Adriel, who has volunteered a whopping 600 hours since they started as an 11-year-old middle-schooler. “I fell in love with it – it’s such a safe and happy place for me. Over the years I’ve gotten to know a lot of the animals better, and some even know the sound of my voice! But the really fulfilling part is interacting with visitors, making a difference in how they perceive wildlife.”

“The people here are just so lovely,” adds Gemma, a 300-hour volunteer. “The other interpreters are so sweet and helpful, and there are always new things to learn. It’s so much fun!”

KNOW A TEEN WHO LOVES ANIMALS? Applications open here in December.

For both teens, friendship is a big part of that fun. It was Adriel in fact that got Gemma started in the first place: Both were freshmen at Tacoma Public School’s Science and Math Institute (SAMi), a high school that shares a campus with both the Zoo and the larger Point Defiance Park. Adriel had already spent three years volunteering at the Zoo in middle school. When the two met, Adriel told Gemma all about it – and the rest is history.

Zoo Guide Gemma Duggan.

“I’d always wanted to work with animals, maybe go into marine biology, and it sounded so cool,” explained Gemma.

Creating community for teens

The high school Zoo Guide volunteer program has just had its first full season back since the Covid-19 pandemic halted all volunteer work at Point Defiance Zoo. Youth aged 14-18 can apply in December, do an informal group interview and orientation, then begin training in late March. Once the summer season officially begins at the end of June, high school volunteers do a six-hour shift once or twice a week through Labor Day, rotating around animal habitats and interacting with Zoo guests by interpreting natural history, animal facts and answering questions.

In areas where guests can get hands-on with animals, volunteers do too: standing inside the goat enclosure to help visitors pat gently, helping monitor inside Budgie Buddies and encouraging exploration at the Pacific Seas Aquarium’s Tidal Touch Zone. They also volunteer at special events like Pride Celebration and Mocktails with the Keepers. Other volunteers help at summer camp.

Zoo Guide Adriel Brewster grooms a goat in Kids Zone.

But Senior Guides have extra responsibilities.

“Along with interpreting on grounds during the summer, Senior Guides are also mentors to our regular Zoo Guides in smaller groups called ‘pod squads,’” explains Amy Wilson, Point Defiance Zoo’s youth volunteer coordinator.  “They take part in group orientation, plan and host events weekly for the other youth volunteers to build community, communicate with their mentees on a regular basis, and help train new Zoo Guides.”

This includes Zoo radio communication, emergency drills, and interpretation at the Asia Forest Sanctuary, Budgie Buddies, Nature Play Garden, Tidal Touch Zone, Kids Zone goats, Rocky Shores, the muskoxen habitat and red wolves. Senior Guides also help with the Bugs Alive program, held twice daily during summer.

“I love being with the goats and getting to pat them,” says Gemma, smiling.

Plus, points out Adriel, Senior Guides can also get some really cool behind-the-scenes experiences, such as a Close Encounter with an animal as an end-of-summer reward.

Post-pandemic, though, the Senior Guides have another big goal: to make zoo volunteering more welcoming and accessible to all.

Zoo guides Adriel, left, and Gemma interpret Rocky Shores animals to visitors.

“It hasn’t been as accessible for everyone – for instance, it’s hard to hold down a job and volunteer,” says Wilson. “So we’re looking into how we create more transferable experiences, flexible schedules, skills that will help them forward? Our goal is for youth volunteers to reflect the diversity of our greater Tacoma community.”

Meanwhile, Senior Guides like Gemma and Adriel – whose younger sister is also in the program – are making it as welcoming and engaging as they can for current volunteers. They plan fun social events like Dinosaur Night, emphasizing JEDAI (justice, equity, diversity, access and inclusion) and creating the kind of community teens so desperately need after years of pandemic isolation.

“I’m planning on wearing my dinosaur onesie to Dino Night,” grins Gemma.

On the path to a wildlife career

Games aside, though, Zoo volunteering can lead to something more serious. Both Gemma and Adriel, recent SAMi grads, are heading to Western Washington University in the fall to study marine biology (they’re also rooming together).

Zoo Guide Adriel Brewster at Budgie Buddies.

“My dream job is to come back and work here,” confesses Gemma, as the two collect their radios and head out of the Zoo’s Environmental Learning Center to take their afternoon shift. “I’m going to apply next summer for a seasonal position.”

Stationing themself in a prime corner of the Rocky Shores underwater viewing area, Gemma starts greeting visitors with a shy “hello,” pointing out California sea lions Boomer and Eloise and sharing their stories. Gemma’s face is wreathed in a quiet smile, and you can tell they’re in their element.

Over in Budgie Buddies, Adriel is standing by the exit door, keeping an eye out for potential escapees. Gently, they wave a cheeky green-and-gold bird away from the door area. Adriel, too, is passionate about an animal-related career, and was lucky enough to get a Zoo internship this year through a SAMi school program.

“It was incredible – I started in food prep at Rocky Shores, then even got to do a couple of animal feeds and a little training,” Adriel says. “I’d love to come back next summer as a staff interpreter! But what’s really fulfilling is making a difference in the way people see wildlife. People can be unsure of what to expect from animals, so I like that I can help them through that to see just how cool these creatures are. That’s the whole mission here, to help people discover, connect, then care. I can see evidence of that in what I’m doing right now. It’s so exciting.”

VOLUNTEER AT THE ZOO: Applications for high school youth volunteers open in December. Applications for adult volunteers open back up in January 2023. Apply at

Zoo Guides Gemma (left) and Adriel on duty at Kids Zone.