As an Adelaide Zoo volunteer, former teacher Sue Scarfe continues her passion for sharing stories.
I meet Scarfe at the Adelaide Zoo’s information desk where volunteers are attending to the day’s duties. The mandate of Australia’s second oldest zoo is: “ to connect people with nature and save species from extinction.”
Volunteers like Scarfe are vital to connecting people to the zoo’s animals.
“The art of being a guide is reading people, reading their faces and body language,” Scarfe says.
She draws on her experience as a teacher to give her confidence in the role. “As a teacher, you are used to delivering the facts and connecting with people.”
Scarfe’s tour of the zoo begins by introducing Brutus, a Nile hippopotamus who is more than 50 years old. “The animals really thrive on the attention,” Scarfe says , as the hippo’s nostrils flare out of the pond in front of us.
The former teacher has some interesting facts about hippopotamuses: they produce their own kind of sunscreen through their leathery skin and are found in the wild near the banks of Africa’s fourth-largest river, the Zambezi. She knows these animals extremely well having completed the training and practice required to become a volunteer guide. The zoo only accepts two new volunteers a year and new helpers must undertake a three-week orientation course before shadowing a senior volunteer after they start.
Scarfe is also attuned to the animal’s personal stories. “Brutus fretted and went off his food when he lost his mate [Susie, who died last year]; they had been together in the same pond since 1975.”
Brutus is doing very well now but the story of his grief at losing his partner to old age is especially moving.
“Animals have stories, like people,” Scarfe says. But she is careful not to personalise the animals too much. A level of respect is needed and the animals aren’t expected to put on a show. As Scarfe says: “this is their home”.
Scarfe works at the zoo three days a fortnight, with her role switching from the information desk to roving guide. The days are long but this doesn’t affect her enthusiasm. She is also an avid golfer and just finished volunteering at the recent Women’s Australian Golf Open at Kooyonga. “It had a terrific atmosphere and it was great to see how the professionals play courses that I have played.”
Scarfe points out a curling tail high up in an ancient fig tree – it’s almost invisible but belongs to a dusky leaf monkey. To connect with the animals it is clear you must be observant. “You have to train your eyes to find the animals,” Scarfe says.
Leo Greenfield is a freelance illustrator