A dozen lucky kids tented overnight on the grounds of the NC Zoo recently. They were taking part in a one-of-a-kind summer camp. Carol Jackson tagged along with a video camera.
Usually when kids camp overnight at a zoo they look closely at the animals and learn from the keepers, or maybe the veterinarians.
But this year, a dozen campers from across North Carolina got to meet with a different group at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. They learned from scientists and researchers who regularly work internationally, doing conservation work. Zoo officials believe this is the first camp of its kind in the nation.
Dr. Corrine Kendall is one of the organizers. She is the Assistant Curator of Conservation and Research at the NC Zoo, and she's done extensive work in Africa.
Today, Corinne Kendall is demonstrating to campers how scientists track elephants and observe them in the wild. First she shows them the helicopter and tracking devices that the zoo has on hand. Then she brings them to the elephant exhibit. There the campers work in a hands-on way, doing something scientists call a scan sample.
"Every thirty seconds I'll say 'time,' and you can write down what the elephant is doing," Kendall says.
The campers' need to document one elephant's behavior. They furiously jot notes every thirty seconds for five minutes.
The animals exhibit a huge variety of behaviors. They sway, performing a kind of dance. They come close to each other, and cross their trunks. (This brings a chorus of "aaawww" from the campers.) The beasts move to the far side of the exhibit, and root in the trees with their trunk. Their tails sway.
This kind of careful observation of animal behavior is an integral part of the daily life of a wildlife biologist.
In addition to conducting scan samples, the campers are asked to make an ethogram. This time, instead of jotting notes every thirty seconds, the goal is to look carefully at the elephants over a longer period of time. The teens document what they see. They are focused on descriptive writing, trying to find precise language to match the animals' actions.
"I've never seen the elephants this active, they're usually standing super far away," says camper Nicole Esch. "When we got here, though, one of them was really close."
The elephants do seem very active today - but perhaps it's just because the junior researchers are looking so closely.
Gadgets & Gizmos
Later in the day, the campers gather for a lesson in radio telemetry from the zoo's Mark MacAllister.
Radio telemetry is used after an animal is collared. Scientists use the technology to track it.
"There's a certain set of skills that you need to be a professional wildlife researcher," MacAllister said. "And we obviously can't teach all of those in a weekend, but we are doing our best to get kids interested in wildlife research."
As the day winds down, the campers settle in tents near the African Plains Exhibit.
The zoo is a special place at night. It gets quiet.
The trains that ferry visitors around stop. The children and families are gone, taking their human hubbub with them, and the campers are left alone with the animals.
The group heads to the lemur exhibit at dusk. The animals are nocturnal, so they are frisky and interested in the unexpected visitors. Corinne Kendall had prepared an experiment. She brought some audio recordings of a different group of lemurs vocalizing. She cued up the lemur's calls and played them on tiny speakers. Suddenly all of the lemurs rushed to get a seat on the central tree in the exhibit. They listened closely, their ears perking up. After listening to the calls, soon the lemurs were vocalizing back to the recording, loudly, their calls filling the evening sky.
"Awesome," breathed Dr. Kendall. It was a great end to the first day of camp.
The camp will be held again at the end of October. Find out more.