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January 31, 2011

Penguin Pal

Aviary Volunteer is All About the Birds

By Heidi Opdyke

Gail Newton’s volunteer work gives her life wings.

Newton, an IT project manager at the Software Engineering Institute, is the president of the National Aviary’s Volunteer Council and has helped with everything from being a docent to cleaning cages for the last five years.

She recently shared her experiences with the aviary at a Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association (CMWA) event. As part of her talk, she gave a presentation on African Penguins that was originally designed for a CMU Learning and Development class.

Her passion started with a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with dolphins 
at Discovery Cove in Orlando.

“I was so positively impacted by the experience, that I wondered how I might someday help other people make a similar connection,” she said.

She called the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, but they weren’t accepting volunteers at that time of year. The aviary, however, started her right away.

“The Aviary training staff are incredibly talented mentors and there are so many ways to help make an impact as a volunteer there,” she said.

Newton wasn’t alone for her talk. She had a little help from Simon, one of the aviary’s penguins.

I had at least a year of volunteering (and guest interactions) under my belt before I had the opportunity to start learning how to work with select birds,” Newton said.  “Every bird has its own traits and there are protocols that must be followed for the safety of the bird and the handler. You really learn to respect these creatures and their natural behaviors. They are wild animals after all.”

The aviary is actively involved in a managed breeding program for African Penguins, which has declined by 90 percent in the last 100 years. There are fewer 
than 60,000 in the wild.

At large, the aviary has more than 500 birds and 200 species.

If anyone has interest in volunteering, Newton recommends they give it a try. Volunteers serve as docents who provide aviary guests with wildlife and ecology information through guided tours and informal talks. They also serve as education volunteers who receive special training above and beyond the docent roles.
“I really didn’t know very much about birds when I first started volunteering at the National Aviary,” she said. “So don’t be hesitant to volunteer because you don’t have a ‘birding’ or zoo background. You will definitely have opportunities to learn about the amazing birds, and what it takes to care for them and train them. You’ll also get to meet some great people in the process — Aviary staff and guests.”

For more information about volunteering at the National Aviary, visit or contact the National Aviary Volunteer 
Coordinator at 412-323-7235 x476 or

For more information and for upcoming CMWA events, visit

Gail Newton works with Simon, an African Penguin from the National Aviary, during a recent talk at CMU.