Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Luke Turkington does volunteer work in the Asian Highland exhibit area.

Calling 17-year-old Luke Turkington a regular at Salt Lake City's Hogle Zoo would be an understatement of mammoth proportion.

The soft-spoken Park City High School senior has spent several hundred hours since his 12th birthday watching and feeding wild cats and primates as well as initiating conversations about habitat conservation at the zoo. In 2007 alone, he put in more than 700 hours of volunteer work there and started more than 20,000 conservation talks.

Tuesday morning, after attending the one remaining class he needs for graduation, Turkington drove to the zoo to volunteer. He was charged with ensuring a stunning female Amur leopard didn't become too stressed while getting to know her new outdoor environment.

Turkington's urge to volunteer started with watching cougars in the wild, he said. He plans to make a career of observing wild cats after a stint in the Army, which he hopes will pay for his planned four years of college to follow.

The cat curiosity in Turkington is supplemented by a passion for climate conservation, he said.

"Conservation is the most important thing to me personally," he said. "We need to help all the species. If the world's all messed up, no one can live."

When not preparing food for zoo animals or watching them adapt, Turkington spends his volunteer time talking with zoo visitors. He is part of the "docent" team of volunteers that approaches visitors year-round, answering questions and preaching environmental preservation.

"They're hugely important to the zoo and our message of conservation," said zoo spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite. "That conservation message is important in everything we do here."

Turkington said he generally approaches visitors and initiates either a species-specific conversation or a general conservation message. He talks of habitat being destroyed in Asia and Indonesia and the poaching of large cats, he said.

In the gorilla exhibit, Turkington discusses the hunting of primates for food, and the fact that the creation of cell phone batteries encroaches upon the animals' environments. He also tries to mention that palm oil comes from primate habitats, so avoiding the purchase of it can help save the beasts.

"This really helps people get excited," Braithwaite said. "If we get them started talking, they tell their friends and their family."

The volunteers' efforts toward preservation education at the zoo are supplemented by signage, merchandise from which proceeds benefit conservation worldwide, biodegradable concessions containers, a special pay phone equipped with environmental friendliness messages for children and other programs.

The Hogle Zoo's focus on conservation for specific species and for the planet in general is common among zoos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Braithwaite said. Zoos can be understood as somewhat of an insurance policy for the diversity of earth's species because the institutions protect endangered animals that may not able to live in habitats outside of zoos, she said.

"A lot of people go about their day and don't think about this stuff," Braithwaite said. "The animals are from so far away, they don't seem real. But when they come to the zoo and get to see the animals in person, they can get the (conservation) message."

E-mail: [email protected]