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Promise Keepers

Local ZooTeens create chimpanzee interpretive exhibit, fulfill 23-year-old promise
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, 
The recently completed chimpanzee interpretive exhibit at the Oregon Zoo features photos, drawings, quotes and information boxes showing the progression of human understanding of chimps through the years.

Thanks to some local teens, a 23-year-old promise to Jane Goodall by the Oregon Zoo has been fulfilled. And they couldn't have been happier to help.

'It was really nice ... just showing everyone what we can do for the community and what we can do for the Zoo,' said Sunset High senior Carolyn Sutter, who coordinated the project honoring Goodall's late husband. 'Doing this display just showed how much we can do when we're passionate about something.'

It all began back in 1979, when Goodall and her husband Derek Bryceson, director of the Tanzania National Parks, visited the zoo. Bryceson died of cancer soon after their visit, and the zoo dedicated its indoor chimpanzee viewing space to him, promising to later design an interpretive area to showcase Goodall's work. But after a 1983 change in administration, that promise went by the wayside.

That is, until the ZooTeens members came along.

The zoo's Youth Volunteer Coordinator Mia Reager said the group for ninth- through 12th-graders was formed about 30 years ago and today consists of 325 members. She said the ZooTeens have been an amazing asset for the zoo, contributing more than 50,000 hours of service each year and providing inspiration to staff members.

Some of the responsibilities of ZooTeens members include helping with the care and feeding of a number of animals, doing presentations at Zoo Camp and keeping visitors informed at Tide Pool and Bug Cart attractions. They also develop leadership skills, enjoy friendships and have career exploration opportunities.

'I just feel like our job is to offer them a safe place to find what they're capable of,' Reager said.

Matt Brown, a 17-year-old senior at Tigard High School, will begin his fifth term with ZooTeens this winter. Brown said the chimpanzee interpretive project started with an inspiring talk by Senior Primate Keeper Dave Thomas, who told the teens all about Goodall and her history with the chimps at the zoo. Thomas then asked if the teens were willing to put together a display that would honor the promise made to his friend more than 20 years ago.

'When we heard about this project from Dave Thomas, we instantly knew it was such a good opportunity,' Brown said.

The idea was to create a display that shows the development of understanding of primates though the years, beginning in the 1960s. Thomas said it covers three themes: Goodall and her work, the history of the chimps at the zoo and the ZooTeens.

The display progresses with pictures, quotes, facts, carvings and a lower-half area designed just for children. All of the elements were created or chosen by ZooTeens members, and Reager said it is proof of how dedicated the teenagers are.

'It's a sample of what can happen if you allow teens a voice. People don't get that they are passionate, they have a very clear vision of what they want to do,' she said. 'They're so insightful that it's inspiring to watch.'

As the overall coordinator of the project, Sutter was kept very busy. She said her duties included attending all the meetings, keeping everything on track and, when things weren't getting done, she did them herself. She was also in charge of designing the project and creating an image that conveyed everything the ZooTeens had imagined.

'It demanded pretty much my entire life,' she said, 'but I think it does what we wanted it to do.'

Chelsea Stine, a Sunset High Junior, did photo research for the project. She said she must have looked through thousands of pictures in the zoo's collection in order to pick the ones that would make it onto the final project. Even after all the hours that she and other ZooTeens put into it, Stine wished for just a little longer to make sure everything was absolutely perfect.

'It was a really big project,' she said. 'Sometimes I wish we had had more time to put into it.'

Reager said the process to determine which pictures made the cut was to first choose the ones the teens liked best, then to see where they fit in the different themes, and lastly, to see how they would physically fit onto the available spaces. Like the rest of the project, it was all decided by the ZooTeens members. Reager said she made sure the teens had adults available for input, but she always told them they didn't have to do anything they didn't want to. And that is the same message the zoo administrators sent.

'The zoo in general gave them free reign. It was very nice,' she said.

The exhibit took a year to complete, with all the members of ZooTeens having at least some sort of part in bringing it to life. When the display was unveiled on Sept. 1, Thomas said he was touched by how it all turned out. He said he visited the teens when they were setting everything up the night before the exhibit was officially opened, and after he left, he had to turn around and come back so he could take it all in by himself.

'I was pretty floored,' he said. 'I was overwhelmed by it.'

Stine said she was really pleased at how the project turned out and that it felt great to finish it.

'It was actually a really great accomplishment, and I was really proud of it,' she said.

Stine's mom felt the same way about the exhibit as her daughter, and during the unveiling she took Stine's picture in front of the display and sent it out as a card to her family members to show what the 16-year-old had accomplished.

Brown was also proud of the finished product. He said when they finally completed the project, he was happy to have been a part of something so important and powerful at the zoo.

'It was really amazing to see all the elements we had. Seeing it all come together like that … was really cool,' he said. 'I was really glad that we were able to put something like that together.'

And now that the ZooTeens have helped satisfy a promise made long ago, Thomas is finally able to have some closure.

'I just feel like I can move on now,' he said. 'There is a part of me that said it's sad that it took this long to do it, but it took this long to do it right.'