Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team is on a mission to conserve Texas native wildlife

On a recent Saturday morning in east Oak Cliff, Dallas Zoo volunteer Thelva Balkus stood in a creek near Herndon Park, pen and paper at the ready.

In 90-degree heat, about half a dozen other volunteers in bright orange vests used reacher grabbers to pick up litter scattered throughout the creek bed.

Volunteers called out each piece of trash — six beer-bottle caps and an eyeglass lens here, two pieces of a plastic bag and a flip-flop there — as they bagged it up.

“It’s good for the environment and for the animals,” said Balkus, 59, as she methodically categorized and tallied each type of debris. “It’s fun, and the people are wonderful that they give up their time.”

Volunteers Thelva Balkus, Cynthia Smoot and Angelita Howard count items of trash during the Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team litter cleanup at Herndon Park.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

Balkus is a volunteer with the Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team, a group that regularly conducts nature conservation projects.

While the group has been established for several years, projects have begun again in earnest after a brief hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katie Emmons, conservation programs coordinator at the zoo, said one of the goals of the cleanups is to help conserve mussels. While people don’t typically associate litter with mussels, pollution could cause significant problems in local waterways in the long term, she said.

“[Mussels] are filter feeders, so they help keep our waterways clean,” she said. “Plastic doesn’t ever really decompose; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

“We’re finding that those pieces are getting so small that the mussels are able to filter them out of the water, which is great for cleaning up our waterways, but then the mussels have litter pollution in their systems and it’s making them sick.”

Elsewhere in the park, groups of volunteers picked up trash scattered around a playground and along the upper creek banks. All told, they bagged 122 pounds of litter — including a tire, a tiki torch and a 10-gallon tub.

Conservation programs coordinator Katie Emmons weighs a tire that was found during the...
Conservation programs coordinator Katie Emmons weighs a tire that was found during the cleanup at Herndon Park.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

At the end of the cleanup, zoo staff members logged the data into a citizen science app.

“Our city officials could look and see, ‘Oh, this park had a lot of cigarette butts, maybe there’s not a proper disposal system there,’” Emmons said. “For the wider scientific community, maybe they’re just trying to figure out what types of trash we’re finding so that they can target those industries or spread more education about the specific litter pollution problems.”

Emmons schedules monthly pickups across Dallas that community members are welcome to take part in. In addition to a handful of zoo staffers, typically between a dozen and 20 volunteers attend each event, she said.

“I love seeing the community come together and that they’re really invested in taking action for wildlife,” Emmons said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the volunteers.

Neighbors around Herndon Park stood on porches and watched the team work. One man brought doughnuts for the group to thank them for keeping the neighborhood clean.

“The people in the neighborhoods really appreciate it, and they come out and say thank you. It’s really rewarding,” Balkus said.

Later this year, the Wild Earth Action Team will travel throughout Texas for additional conservation projects.

In July, staffers and volunteers will go to South Padre Island for a beach cleanup and nest protection work to help sea turtles. In September, the team will head to San Antonio to work on invasive-species removal and erosion control in an effort to conserve the region’s bat colony.

Each project has a “poster animal” that the team focuses on. Those animals are chosen based on one of the zoo’s 12 conservation priorities: protecting Texas native wildlife.

Volunteers Cynthia Smoot and Angelita Howard collect trash at Dallas Zoo's Wild Earth Action...
Volunteers Cynthia Smoot and Angelita Howard collect trash at Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team litter cleanup at Herndon Park.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

“As one of our Protecting the Twelve priorities, we have Texas wildlife,” Emmons said. “Even though we don’t have them here at the zoo, there’s species that are really important to our Texas ecosystem, and they’re also species that are really important to the general public.”

Emmons eventually hopes to plan conservation projects across the United States.

But no matter where the work takes place, staffers and volunteers say they are fulfilled knowing they have a positive effect on the environment.

“It impacts the environment, so we know that ultimately it impacts us as well,” said Roxanne Welch, 56, who has been volunteering at the zoo with her family for several years. “There’s plastic everywhere. If we can get it out, because not many people pick it up, it’s a big difference.”