by Autumn Hilden
Longtime L.A. Zoo docent and donor Muriel Horacek has been interviewed several times. Like a lot of things she does, she’s well prepared for it. To our conversation, she brings notes, pictures, pamphlets, printed articles, and her stuffed echidna. Though it’s 88 degrees and she’s 97 years old, she declines a seat in the shade, because, in addition to being prepared, she’s tough. “Can you imagine when I was in college they wouldn’t let us wear slacks to school unless it was a really bad blizzard? I went to Syracuse.”
After graduation Horacek got a job at Exxon. “I was doing personnel work, interviewing people. It was right after the war in 1945,” she recalls. Soon she met her husband at work. He was younger and had a job as an office boy, but after his own graduation the pair had an opportunity. “When we had a chance to go overseas, right away we were very happy. I enjoyed it. It was 17 years we spent overseas.” In fact, Horacek moved 20 times before settling in L.A. “This is the longest I’ve been in one place,” she says. “That’s why I like to meet people here from all over: I can relate to the people that way.”
She’s had a lot of practice forming new friendships. “In Peru,” she remembers, “I started a bridge club. I invited some of the American ladies that wanted to learn Spanish and some of the Peruvian ladies that wanted to learn bridge. And we met every week and only spoke Spanish.”
Those were the early days. “My first traveling was always with babies,” she says. Later in life “my husband and I did a lot of hiking—” she laughs at the memories “—mostly hut to hut, but pub to pub across England.”
She brushes me off when I ask if that’s what has kept her young. “I’m lucky,” she says. “And I’m busy.”
Indeed, after a second chapter that included countless wildlife expeditions on six continents with Earthwatch, Muriel has slowed down a bit and now “only” volunteers as a docent four days a week, but in some ways her work as a docent reminds her of her traveling days. “I have an apartment in a senior center. I like knowing those people, and I have a great time with them when I’m not here, but it’s mostly the same kind of people,” she explains. “I like coming here because I meet all kinds of people. All ages, all races, all backgrounds, from many states and many countries–116 countries. I ask them where they’re from, and I tell them I lived in Peru. I tell them I lived in Libya and two of my children were born there, and then we have a nice conversation.”
She shares several stories of people whom she has met while on duty as a docent, most of whom have traveled internationally to L.A. and a few of whom she has kept in touch with over time. All of these meetings she carries with her. It makes her feel good that travelers, especially international travelers, recognize the quality of the Zoo and include it as one of precious few stops in the country.
“I think the Zoo is doing a great job,” Horacek says. She calls out the Zoo’s efforts to provide equal access to animals for people of all incomes and our condor conservation program, and she gives a special shoutout to the International Marketplace, where she shops, not only for herself but for 15-20 friends in her building who can’t get out to buy gifts anymore. “I try,” she says simply of her efforts to help those around her.
It’s the same when she’s at her post at the Zoo. “I like to initiate conversation and tell people about the animals. Sure, sometimes I’m rebuffed, and they aren’t interested in knowing more. But most of them, when I keep telling them how unusual the echidna is, most of them are interested.”
She tries to encourage other docents, too. “If you stay by one animal and learn as much as you can about it, you’ll also get to know things that animal does that are interesting. Then you can tell people about it. I know a lot of the docents have done a lot of traveling, and I hope that they bring anything they’ve learned from that here. I’m sure lots of docents have stories to tell. Some have 35 years of service at the Zoo! People really appreciate the good stories.”
When she’s done sharing her stories at end of each shift, Muriel catches a ride home, usually via Lyft. She’s prepared for that, too. “I don’t like to stay past three,” she says, “because the Lyft prices go way up.”