At the National Zoo's Panda House, Kristen Miller and Molly Frantz stared intently at the closed-circuit TV screens monitoring the whereabouts of the animals in an outdoor enclosure. The male giant panda was grooming himself. The female -- who might be pregnant -- was sprawled over a log, asleep. Miller typed observations into a computer while Frantz jotted notes.
Nearby, at the Cheetah Conservation Station, Beth Cavey and Mimi Minarik trained binoculars on four cheetahs, born in November, that were lolling in the grass next to their mother. Minarik was keeping an eye on the two "boys," and Cavey had the "girls" in sight. The women carried clipboards and wrote down their observations of the growing youngsters, the first cheetahs born at the zoo in its 115-year history.
Behavior-watch volunteers Kristen Miller, left, and Molly Frantz use closed-circuit TV screens to monitor giant pandas in an enclosure and then log their observations. "There's a bit of voyeurism here," says Frantz, of Friendship Heights. No behavior is private, "not if we can help it."
(Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
"I love animals. It's always been my passion," said Cavey, 40, of Arlington. "I wish I could go see them roaming free in the wild, but this is the next best thing."
As behavior-watch volunteers, Cavey, Minarik, Miller and Frantz are among hundreds who help with various animal-care and visitor services each year at the zoo. More than 100 people conduct behavioral watches, keeping tabs on the giant pandas; the cheetah cubs; the giant Pacific octopus; the young Asian elephant, Kandula; and the kori bustards, rare African birds.
"There's a bit of voyeurism here," said Frantz, a retired congressional aide who lives in Friendship Heights and who has been a behavioral watcher since the early 1970s. Nothing that the animal does is private, she said, "not if we can help it."
The volunteer program is operated by Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), the animal park's nonprofit support organization. Monitoring the giant pandas and the cheetah cubs are highly coveted assignments that tend to go to longtime volunteers; five more cheetahs were born at the zoo Thursday. But FONZ is recruiting new volunteers to be "interpreters," or visitor guides, at the Elephant House and Invertebrate Exhibit. It also needs keeper aides for several other animal exhibits, as well as teenage volunteers who can help this summer with Kids' Farm and other zoo programs.
Volunteers have conducted behavioral watches on zoo animals since FONZ was founded in 1958, said its spokesman, Matt Olear. But it wasn't until the first pair of giant pandas arrived in the early 1970s that a formal, more scientific data-collection program was launched.
Helped by volunteers, zoo scientists have published studies on mother-young relationships in captive ungulates, or hoofed stock, and on the use of objects as tools by the golden lion tamarin monkeys, which roam free in the park during warm-weather months.
The zoo gets behavioral watchers from across the region. Volunteers for the assignments typically receive three to 15 hours of training. They commit to one year, generally doing two to three shifts a month. The shifts are two to three hours, depending on the program.
The volunteers "are invaluable because they help us understand and document the behavior of our animals," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's assistant curator for apes and giant pandas. "They can monitor the animals and record behavior for us and, over time, we can look at the observations and draw conclusions."
Stevens said behavior watchers have studied the two pairs of giant pandas, starting with Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing and continuing, since 2000, with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
"We've learned an incredible amount about their preferences, which has helped us create a more complex, enriched environment for them," Stevens said. Documenting how the pandas interact and their yard preferences will help the zoo in designing a bigger panda habitat that will open next year as part of the new Asia Trail.
Miller, a law firm assistant who lives on Capitol Hill, began volunteering in the 1980s and is a veteran of several panda watches, including those conducted during breeding season.
"It gives me an opportunity to give back," she said. "I like animal behavior and the opportunity to participate in scientific studies."
At the cheetah exhibit, the cubs recently were put into a larger yard, and the behavioral watchers are seeing how they adapt.
Keeper Craig Saffoe and research assistant Jennifer Mickelberg said there is not a lot of recorded information about cheetah-cub behavior.
"We need a good base of what's normal and not normal to help us manage our animals in the most effective way," Saffoe said. The data collected by Cavey, Minarik and others -- on nursing, social play, grooming, vocalizations and other activities -- "will be shared with other zoos, not just us."
The cubs "test their limits, and then they go running back to mom. It's like watching four kids," said Cavey, a volunteer since 1992.
Minarik, 67, a retired nurse from Alexandria who was in health care for 45 years, wanted to do something different.
"I love the zoo," she said. "I came with the kids and the grandchildren but not that often -- certainly not once or twice a week like now. It's wonderful."
To find out more about volunteer opportunities, contact FONZ at 202-633-3025 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the zoo/FONZ Web site at www.fonz.org/volunteer.htm.