While some of his teenage peers spent their summers hanging out at the pool and playing sports, Catonsville resident Patrick McMann spent his past three vacations from school cleaning cages and working with wild animals.
Late last month, his efforts as a volunteer at the Maryland Zoo were recognized — he was named the zoo's Volunteer of the Year.
"I loved it, it was exciting," said McMann, now a freshman biology major at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
He began his volunteer work in 2010 as part of the zoo's Junior Zoo Crew — a summer-camp-like program that teaches students ages 14-17 about animal care and environmental issues. He worked his way up into the Junior Keeper program, where he spent his past two summers.
"It's definitely a completely different perspective, because you get to know what's happening behind the scenes," McMann said of his volunteer experience.
McMann heard about the junior keeper program through his older sister, and over the years kept coming back and advancing to more complex and challenging zoo exhibits.
In each habitat, McMann was responsible for cleaning the exhibit and its holding cages, preparing food and feeding the animals. His duties eventually led to working with full-time zookeepers to develop enrichment activities for the different animals.
"I started out in the Maryland wilderness, with the foxes and reptiles and stuff," McMann said from the St. Mary's campus in southern Maryland. "I moved into the African watering hole, which is rhinos and zebras and some big cats.
"Feeding a rhino is amazing because they don't have front teeth so they kind of eat your entire hand," he said. "You take your hand out and it's all slobbery and stuff."
"Every area is a little bit different," he said.
He eventually advanced to the chimp forest, an area that very few volunteers ever gain enough experience to work in, according to Kristi Giles, manager of zoo volunteers.
"Some students catch on quick to the basic routine," Giles said. "And then those students, as they have openings, will be able to go into areas of higher sensitivity and areas that might be a little bit more of a challenging environment to work in."
The chimp forest is challenging because of areas the animals' high levels of intelligence, Giles said.
"This is an area where you really need to have a volunteer who's extremely trustworthy, who really has a good understanding of safety," she said. "You have to really keep your wits about you with these animals.
"He [McMann] had developed such a trust of him and his abilities that he was able to observe and participate in training sessions with the chimpanzees and different animal enrichments," Giles said. "He was a really important part of the chimp forest team."
One of McMann's favorite projects with the chimps involved filling various PVC pipes with different treats, such as honey, molasses or barbecue sauce. Those pipe were then screwed into different holes in the chimpanzee exhibit.
"All the chimps could see was a bunch of holes on their side, so they had to go find a bunch of twigs or sticks to see what holes had the treat on the other side," he said. "In the wild, they would do that with termite mounds as an effective way to get termites out."
Though he's not sure what he plans to do with his degree in biology, the Archbishop Curley High School graduate said he loved working at the zoo and is keeping a possible career at a zoo in mind.
"When I go to other zoos, I'm like trying to figure out where the transfer doors are and trying to learn something to bring back to the Maryland Zoo," he said.
"Just looking at other exhibits and seeing how other zoos do it differently than us, it's really cool," he said.
It was this positive, curious attitude that led Giles and the Maryland Zoo staff to name McMann Volunteer of the Year.
Giles said award candidates are dedicated, reliable and hard working. She said the staff then determines who should be recognized.
"Patrick is a great kid," Giles said. "He's a really strong student. We kind of had high hopes for Patrick or an inkling that he would be a big success."
McMann said he appreciated having his three years and more than 1,350 hours of volunteer service recognized.
"It's nice," he said. "Because you stop in high school, so I'm not there anymore and it's nice to get an award the last time you're there."