Talk To The Animals

HZS executive director Ted Otaguro and director of volunteers Barbara Thacker with co-workers Shelby Carlos and Sarah Stebbing

HZS executive director Ted Otaguro and director of volunteers Barbara Thacker with co-workers Shelby Carlos and Sarah Stebbing PHOTO BY BODIE COLLINS

Honolulu Zoo Society invites you to join its ohana at the animal-friendly urban oasis

Welcome to our oasis in the middle of the city,” smiles Steve Molnar, as he ushers us through the gates of bustling Honolulu Zoo. Molnar is just one of the dedicated volunteers of Honolulu Zoo Society (HZS) who daily gives of his time, energy and heartfelt passions to provide the public with such an idyllic retreat.

Molnar’s official volunteer title is “Zoo Talker,” which fits perfectly with his gregarious personality and love of people.

“It’s just wonderful,” says Molnar, as he describes his typical day at the zoo welcoming guests. “I get to interact with kids, families and people from all over the world, and get to simply be that ‘uncle’ who talks story with them about all there is to see here.”

If you ask Molnar, he’ll immediately tell you that he sees his primary goal as simply “to get people excited!” And if it sounds like Molnar is passionate about his role, it’s because he is, right down to the core of his being.

“It’s a place that makes me happy,” Molnar admits. “You come here and you have hope in a world that is a hard place at times — we provide this oasis in the middle of the city where kids can come and run free.”

HZS director of volunteers Barb Thacker sheds some light on the integral role that Molnar and volunteers just like him play in providing the public with the restorative experience they have come to know, love and, yes, even need.

“Zoo Talkers are vital,” Thacker explains. “They share animal facts and education about the zoo in such a way that the facts become these exciting and fun stories instead of science lectures for kids to sit through.”

According to Thacker, “What the Zoo Talkers offer is a ‘talk-story’ to inspire.” When it comes to achieving the incorporation of that fun and excitement into the educational experience of the zoo, “the Zoo Talkers are acting as that bridge to accomplish it.”

Molnar is just one of a small army of selfless citizens (Honolulu Zoo Society currently has 220 steady volunteers) who have felt a calling to get involved. And while Molnar’s outgoing personality is perfect for his Zoo Talker duties, those more reserved servant hearts need not fear, as we are assured there is a place for all to be of use here.

One such example is volunteer couple Nalani and Robert Boon, who for more than 20 years have offered their master green thumbs to beautify and enrich the gorgeous zoo grounds. Directly responsible for the zoo’s Children and Butterfly gardens, the Boons take great joy in quietly cultivating the land — a task that Robert jokingly declares, “You literally couldn’t pay us to do!”

“There’s a lot of love that goes into everything,” Thacker explains, as she further opens our eyes to the collaborative labor of love that exists between the City of Honolulu and Honolulu Zoo Society itself, a cooperative effort that enables this urban oasis to function at full capacity.

“It’s really a partnership, and we (HZS) are the community outreach, taking the ‘product’ that is the zoo and bringing it into the community, nurturing it and offering support, which works hand-in-hand with the city’s equally important role.”

HZS executive director Ted Otaguro reiterated the importance and value of this cohesive collaboration, pointing to HZS’ emphasis on education (about 30,000 kids are reached each year), coordinating volunteers, conservation efforts and, of course, fundraising.

“Honolulu Zoo Society was created in 1969 in order to help support the zoo,” explains Otaguro. “It was a cooperative agreement established with the City of Honolulu, in which we would assist and support by providing aid in education, conservation and coordination efforts.”

Otaguro’s passion for what he deeply believes to be a priceless public venue is impossible to hide. It’s clearly revealed in the gentle crinkle of his eyes and fond grin of remembrance, as he recalls how much of his own childhood was spent here in awe of zoo wildlife.

“We want the zoo to be the best in the world,” Otaguro declares, which would explain the great lengths that HZS and its volunteers, in collaboration with the city, are willing to go in order to ensure the zoo’s continued success and viability.

Just one of the ways HZS enriches the Honolulu Zoo experience is through its many educational programs. This includes Zoo to You program, where HZS actually goes out to various schools across the island offering a window to the zoo world.

“We realize not every child can get to the zoo,” explains Otaguro, “so we began this educational program to go out to the schools and educate the kids.”

HZS has since expanded the program to reach out to senior care homes, providing that extra touchpoint for an equally deserving elderly community.

HZS president Jason Ito was instrumental in implementing this specific program, and reiterates the importance and value of the HZS volunteers.

“Volunteers play a key role at the zoo,” he says. “The society remains committed to funding the staff necessary to attract and schedule our volunteers as directed by the zoo’s leadership team. The society’s programs also continuously evolve to meet the changing needs of the community — from keiki to kupuna. It’s for this exact reason that we’ve recently launched this new care-home education program, so our kupuna can learn about the world’s wildlife during their multi-generational family visits.”

HZS also is honored to provide support for animal enrichment at the zoo. Thacker explains that this goes beyond animals’ mere necessities. “We strive to meet AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accreditation standards, which means that we are not just obligated to supply basic needs (food, shelter, etc.), but also to provide stimulation and an enriched quality of life.”

To find out more about how you can get involved or support HZS, visit or simply stop by for Walk-In-Wednesday, a weekly open house offered from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for anyone interested in becoming a volunteer.