A Walk on the Wild Size: Early Stage Memory Loss Zoo Walks

Written by Steve, Alzheimer’s Association Volunteer and Zoo Walk Participant

A Walk in a Park

On nearly every Wednesday, shortly after the Woodland Park Zoo opens, members of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Early-Stage Memory Loss (ESML) Zoo Walk gather near the Zoo’s south entrance. There are typically four to eight Walkers in the group with their care partners accompanied by volunteers who either lead, help keep the group together, and, hopefully, provide amusing commentary. Sometimes the group includes a Zoo Volunteer who arranges a special activity or wants to share their passion for one of the zoo animals. My mother, Ruth, who is 88 years old, joined the group in the summer of 2021, shortly after her diagnosis, but the Zoo Walk was on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our first walk was in October.

Zoo Walk Beginnings

The Zoo Walk was established in 2012 by the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter, in collaboration with the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department, and the Greenwood Senior Center. The inaugural walk happened on Monday, August 13, 2012, led by Hailey Adair and included three Walkers with early-stage memory loss, two Care Partners, and three volunteers. In the fall of 2013, Melinda Franklin became the lead volunteer of the Walk, which was expanded to a second group led by her husband, Barry, in 2014. By the end of 2022, there were three Zoo Walks for people with memory loss, two Early Stage and a new Middle Stage Walk.

The goal of the Zoo Walk is to provide cognitive support through social opportunities, mental stimulation, and mild exercise. The Woodland Park Zoo provides a perfect setting for meeting these goals. The schedule involves walking one day a week for 11 weeks and then taking a two-week break, which works out to 44 visits to the Zoo each year. The walk begins with general milling around outside the South entrance to the Zoo, where we sign in and get tickets. Once we’re inside, we walk and view the animals for 45 to 60 minutes, and then we head to the 1899 Grove Café for about an hour of socializing.

Over the course of the year, we visit each section of the Zoo multiple times and see most of the animals, although the Bird Flu epidemic kept the birds quarantined this past summer. The leader chooses a different route each week, often influenced by the arrival of new (baby) animals, or some significant occurrence. The goal is to walk even if it’s raining or cold, and in the past year, the walk was only canceled once for heat and once for snow.

A Typical Zoo Walk Day

Our first Zoo Walk in October 2021 began at the Savanna Overlook, which is close to the south entrance. In the picture from that day, we can see zebras, gazelles, and ostriches, but no giraffes. The Zoo says, “that the savanna enclosure is a mixed-species exhibit, where zebra, gazelle, giraffe, ostrich, guinea fowl, Egyptian geese live together, hopefully in harmony.” When we arrived at the Savanna lookout, harmony seemed to prevail. While everyone noted that the giraffes weren’t out, the main topic of conversation was the weight of the ostrich.

The ostrich in question was Nbuni, a male ostrich that probably weighs between 300 and 350 pounds. It’s getting close to Thanksgiving, and the typical American is thinking about feasting on that turkey in a few weeks. The comments go something like this: “Can you stuff an ostrich and bake it in the oven just like a turkey, assuming you can find an oven large enough for the job?” “Do zoo visitors around the world see ostriches and immediately think of them as huge chickens?” “What about a new franchise called Ostrich-fil-A?” 

Heading east along the Main Loop, we take the Savanna Trail to visit the African Weaver birds in the Savanna Aviary. African Weavers are bright active yellow birds, and in the spring, the males weave a nest using grass that hangs from a branch with an entrance that opens below. The next stop on the Savanna Trail is the Hippo pool, home to Lily and Lupe, where we encountered Bob, one of the zoo volunteers. One of the great resources at the Zoo is volunteers like Bob, who are a font of knowledge about the animals. We learned that the Hippo pool isn’t heated and that over time they adjust to the cooler water temperature, that they love eating the Halloween pumpkins, and that one of the highlights of their week is playing in the water jet used to refill their pool after cleaning. We also learned from Bob that another reason that the giraffes were not on the savanna is because Dave, the male giraffe, doesn’t get along with Nbuni, the male ostrich. When Dave was a young giraffe and first introduced to the savanna, Nbuni started chasing him around, and Dave, now a 19-foot tall, 2,500-pound giraffe, is still intimidated by him. I imagine Dave would love to invest in the Ostrich-fil-A franchise.

After trekking through the Living Northwest Trail, Australasia, The Trail of Vines, or the Assam Rhino Reserve, Barry will declare that it’s time for coffee and the group makes a mad dash to the 1899 Grove Café. This is Seattle, after all, and we do like our warm beverages, typically the ever-popular Senior coffee or hot chocolate (with whip). During the warmer months, we drag the tables and chairs together outside, but when it begins to get cold, we retreat indoors at the café. For some of the Walkers, it’s clear that their favorite part of the walk is the time we spend together at the café. For about an hour, we relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Our Favorite Things

If we didn’t visit the gorillas during the Walk, my mother and I will swing by their enclosure on the way out of the zoo. According to my mother, the Zoo Walk is just fun. She likes the exercise, socializing with the other Walkers, and watching the animals and it’s important to her that we are doing this activity together. She loves going to the café and having her senior hot chocolate with whipped cream, enjoying the conversation and company of the others in a more intimate setting. I have to say that her favorite part of going to the zoo is watching the young gorillas Kitoko and Zuna running around wrestling and chasing each other and playing with their older sister Yola. My mother enjoys sitting on her walker watching the gorillas and the reactions of the children responding to the gorillas and could sit there for hours. For her, it is truly the best seat in the house.

As I said above, the Zoo Walk is intended to provide Walkers with cognitive support through exercise and social interactions. Still, whether intended or not, I feel that as a Care Partner, I also receive significant emotional support from participating in this activity. During the Walk, I enjoy the peaceful setting and relaxation. My main responsibility is to get my mother hot chocolate at the café and my main worry is that they ran out of whipped cream.

There’s a lot of life experience in this group. I’ve had many interesting conversations during the past year, and I’m developing friendships that will last for years to come. Although I have lived in Seattle for over 25 years, I had not visited the Woodland Park Zoo before starting the Zoo Walk with my mother and they have an impressive collection of animals and I’ve enjoyed getting to know the zoo. The most important part of this experience for me is that it benefits my mother and I treasure the time I’ve spent with her on the Zoo Walks.

Our Awesome Volunteers

In addition to the lead volunteer who plans and leads the walk, other volunteers assist and play an important role in the group. They ensure all the Walkers are well attended to, resolve any problems, keep the group together, and foster a good community feeling among the group. During the past year, I’ve met a number of volunteers, and they have varying backgrounds, which led them to the Zoo Walk. For example, Megan Starks joined our group in November 2021, shortly after my mother and I began the Walk. Megan has a lifelong history of volunteering and learning about the Zoo Walk from a posting on volunteermatch.org. She says it’s a chance for her to meet and make connections with people she wouldn’t ordinarily meet, and an opportunity to provide support for people on their journey with Alzheimer’s. Tammy Williams has been a volunteer since May 2017 and learned about the Zoo Walks on the Alzheimer’s Association website . She has a background working with adults with developmental disabilities and enjoys being around the elderly, hearing all the stories about their lives from both the Walker and their companion, and considers the Zoo Walk the highlight of her week. Tammy and I have bonded over our shared interest in lemurs, but unfortunately, she doesn’t also share my love for the Bug House.

I suppose the most interesting journey I’ve heard of is how Charlie Reidy became a volunteer. After multiple surgeries with general anesthesia in 2011, he was diagnosed with permanent short-term memory loss. He joined the Zoo Walk in 2012 as a Walker but was fortunate that his short-term memory issues improved. He considers himself very lucky to have had his cognition improve and decided to shift his volunteer activities to helping Alzheimer’s patients, working to create the Momentia website, and assisting the Parks Department with their dementia-friendly recreation programs. Aside from enjoying the animals, the thing he most enjoys about the Zoo Walk is the opportunity to walk and talk with such great people every week and to get to know them better over time.

Currently, there is a waitlist for joining the Zoo Walk. The demand for this activity is high, especially after the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic with Care Givers looking for outside activities. Our Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association wanted to add a Walk but was only recently able to recruit enough volunteers to add a third weekly Walk on Tuesdays. There is great potential to expand this activity even further to include more walks during the week, but the main obstacle is the need for volunteers.

I hope that my description of the Early-Stage Memory Loss Walk has shown you the benefits experienced by the Walkers who participate in this program and how rewarding it is for the volunteers who show up every week to make the Walk happen. If you are looking for a volunteering activity, I encourage you to consider volunteering for our Zoo Walk, and who knows, maybe you’ll also find it the ‘highlight of your week’.

3 thoughts on “A Walk on the Wild Size: Early Stage Memory Loss Zoo Walks

  1. Described perfectly- in the opinion of a Monday zoo companion. The volunteers are exceptional and show much love, grace and patience. Thank you, Steve, for your wonderful tour.

  2. Truth lies in this short film. “Ruth” is compelling and a very sad commentary on caregiving for someone with dementia. Frustration and anger build as life seems to continue to throw more challenges into the equation of caregiving. Then love spills out. But regret and remorse can hover in the caregiver’s brain long after the hug. We need to minimize our moments of regrets and uplift the loving embraces that can be such a joy in the relationship. These moments matter. Today matters.

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