A passion for animals

by | May 8, 2013

Johanna Salim shares her journey volunteering with the zoo, interacting with the animals and educating visitors about pet responsibility.


BY: Lynne Hong


Johanna, with the help of her furry friend, connects with a young guest and coaxes her to gently stroke the rabbit.

Johanna Salim (affectionately called ‘Auntie Johanna’) is the oldest volunteer at the docent (derived from the Latin word ‘doceo’, meaning ‘to teach’) programme at the Singapore Zoo (she has insisted on not revealing her age). She is not new to volunteering, having volunteered in the SAF Medical Corps and is also currently volunteering at the Geylang Serai Community Club (CC) on the Senior Citizen Executive Committee. However, her love for animals and children has taken her into another direction – to the zoo.

Ageless Online chats with Johanna (who does not have any children) about her volunteering journey:


Can you share how you got into volunteering initially?

I started volunteering 35 years ago at the Geylang Serai CC when a neighbour asked me. Later, there was a volunteer request for operating theatre-trained nurses in the SAF Medical Corps and I signed up, and volunteered for 24 years. I got into volunteering because I wanted to give back to society during my free time. Thus, whenever I am asked to volunteer, if I’m able to, I will.


Can you tell us about the docent programme and your volunteering work?

Started in 1997, the docent initiative is an adult volunteer programme where volunteers are based at Discovery Stations located at Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and Singapore Zoo. Interpretive guidance, games, props and animal artifacts are some of the tools used to educate and engage the visitors to spread the conservation message.

I am responsible for educating visitors about pet responsibility, sharing with them about the animals at my station, and allowing them to touch and interact with the animals in my care. I come in about twice a month and each shift lasts around two hours.


How long have you been volunteering with the docent programme? How did you first learn about the programme?

I have been volunteering for 16 years. I was a ‘Friends of the Zoo’ member and I found out about the docent programme through “Wildlife Wonders”, the in-house publication.


Can you describe your typical volunteering day?

First, I’ll register for duty, collect the keys and draw out the basket and pen for the rabbits and the hedgehog. These are the two animals we bring out that the kids can interact with. I would lay the pen with hay and the basket with shredded newspaper for the animals’ comfort. Thereafter, I would ask the visitors to come by and pet the animals. I would also take this time to share with them facts about animals and pet responsibility such as the principle that a pet is for life, learning more about a pet before buying it, and the proper care for it. At the end of my duty, I would return the animals to their enclosures and clean up before signing out.


What is the best part of your volunteering work?

I thoroughly enjoy the sharing of facts about pet responsibility and animals. The interaction with the animals in my care also brings me great joy. Once, I was engaging a three-year-old boy who was afraid to touch the rabbit. I coaxed him to use only one finger to touch the rabbit. Eventually, he opened up and started stroking the rabbit with his palm. He even managed to have the rabbit on his lap!


What would you say to a senior who wants to volunteer with the docent programme?

You must have a passion for animals and not be afraid of them. And always be dedicated, kind and responsible during your duty.


What Wildlife Reserves Singapore benefits do you get from volunteering?

As a docent, I get free admission to all Wildlife Reserves Singapore parks, which are Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, Singapore Zoo and the newly opened River Safari. After six duties, I get a set of complimentary tickets to the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park. I also get discounts at F&B outlets in the attractions. Most recently, I got a sneak preview of River Safari’s Giant Panda Forest before it was opened to the public.


Johanna engages children at Singapore Zoo’s Rainforest Kidzworld and shares tips on the correct way to groom falabellas (the smallest breed of horses in the world).

How long do you think you will continue volunteering at the zoo?

As long as I am physically and mentally fit, I would continue volunteering at the zoo.


How would you sum up this volunteering programme?

The docent programme is a totally different experience from everyday life as it allows me to get close to the animals and spend time with them. I have enjoyed the experience at the Tame and Touchables station so much so that I have signed up to volunteer at the new River Safari Discovery Station.


So why should seniors volunteer in general?

They should volunteer because it allows them to spend time on their areas of interest sharing their knowledge and skills, which a younger volunteer may not possess. Volunteering also acts as a social hub for seniors to meet other like-minded people.


SIDEBOX: More on the docent programme from Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Is there an age limit to volunteering with the docent programme?

We welcome docents above the age of 21 years old. Applicants below 21 years of age will be considered on a case-by-case basis.


How many over 50-year-old volunteers do you have in the docent programme?



Can volunteers move from one area to the next?

During our common training phase, our volunteer trainees would get to see all our Discovery Stations in Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and Singapore Zoo.

There are currently eight Discovery Stations with a new upcoming Discovery Station at the River Safari. The zoo stations are the African Adventure, Conservation Cove, Fragile Forest, Primarily Primates, Reptile Realm, and Tame and Touchables. For the other parks, there are Bird Bonanza (Jurong Bird Park) and Night Safari.

At the end of the common training phase, they would be allowed to pick their stations, subject to availability and get trained specifically for duty at that station. Trainees would learn how to use interpretives, games, props and animal artifacts to educate and engage visitors. After a year of service, they may request to be transferred to another Discovery Station to learn more.


** For more information about volunteering with the docent programme, visit http://education.zoo.com.sg/docent.html.






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