Gina and Sydney Baitman
“I’ve been coming to the Zoo all my life—back when the Zoo was the Old Zoo,” Gina Baitman begins, referring to the Los Angeles Zoo before it moved to its current location in 1966. “My parents used to take my siblings and me, and I have done the same with my children.”
Sydney, Gina’s daughter, was diagnosed with autism at a young age and the Zoo has been a unique and special place for her. “One of my favorite memories from when Sydney was a year old. She was nonverbal as a child, and during one visit we were looking at the lion. Sydney was in the stroller while her brother stood next to her, and out of nowhere, she let out the biggest roar!” Gina smiles as she recalls the excitement of hearing Sydney speak for the first time. “No dada or mama, but?ROAR?right to the lions.”
As this memory suggests, Sydney has always loved animals. She and Gina started volunteering at the Zoo in 2004, together starting a journey that would ultimately change their lives. With nearly 2,000 volunteer hours there, Muriel’s Ranch in the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo is Sydney’s home away from home. “Coming to the Ranch helped me talk to people and connect with them,” Sydney explains. “I can tell them about the animals I have learned about, like [miniature horse] Reisha or [Nigerian dwarf goat] Truffles.” Sydney even tours visiting family members around the Zoo on her days off. “The keepers are teaching me about being a zookeeper,” she says with excitement.
The dedication and passion Sydney gives to the L.A. Zoo is astounding. She has built strong relationships with staff, volunteers, animals, and guests; she is considered a pillar at Muriel’s Ranch. “Watching, listening, and learning from others at the Zoo helped get you out of your shell,” Gina says to Sydney. “We have found a great place in the Los Angeles Zoo, a lot of friends, and a lot of good people.”
Gina and Sydney came in especially to conduct this interview with me. Shortly after it concluded I stopped by Muriel’s Ranch to find Gina talking to guests and Sydney helping to feed the goats just because they had time to help. Like so many of our volunteers, they are truly remarkable people.