A lot has changed at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium over the past 40 years. And witness to all those changes has been docent Marilyn McCormick.
“We used to be a two-hour zoo,” she said. “Now it takes almost two days to see everything.”
McCormick applied to be a docent after her children had graduated and left home. “I decided to do something for me.”
She said she applied because of an article in The World-Herald about the zoo needing docents. It ran with a cute photo of baby polar bears.
“Two hundred and fifty people showed up,” McCormick said. When the applicants found out they wouldn’t actually be taking care of the baby polar bears, it “pared down the numbers. When they learned they would have to study if they got the job, it left 25 of us.”
McCormick, who lives in Bellevue, grew up in Blair and majored in zoology at Dana College. She worked as a medical technologist until her first daughter was born.
“I walked out of the lab and I’ve never looked back,” she said, adding that she was happy about the docent position because it was something that allowed her to put her college degree to work.
One of the highlights of her zoo career was helping to put in all the interesting plant species in the Lied Jungle. The little bushes she planted are now big trees in some cases, she said.
But in her time at the zoo she has done just about everything, and a lot of it has had nothing to do with zoology. “In the olden days, more fell to us. It’s not like it is today. There were fewer staff and volunteers.”
She has helped in the nursery as part of the old Granny Group, which was fun, and mopped floors — not so fun — and everything in between. She has worked with lions, tigers, bears and monkeys, but in the last 10 years has mostly worked with gorillas and orangutans.
She laughs when she tells people that she changed Mo’s diapers — Mo now is the big silverback, the grand old man of the gorillas.
Her primary focus always has been children and education, she said. “And I love watching the faces of the stroller crowd.”
Lately she also has been introducing kids to things — spiders, snakes, cockroaches — that usually are considered frightening or at least make people take a step back. “Snakes are really interesting,” she insisted. “I like introducing people to things they don’t like.”
McCormick doesn’t look her 86 years. She credits being a docent with keeping her mentally and physically active.
She said being a docent isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t that difficult if you’re willing to work hard and learn new things. Most important, she said, “you’ve got to be flexible.”
There are about 130 active docents. “We train new ones all the time.”
The question McCormick always finds most difficult to answer is: What is your favorite animal?
“That’s about like asking someone, what is your favorite child?”
She recently was honored for her 40 years of service at the zoo. “I’m going to get my name on one of the benches. My family wants to sit on my bench.”
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