Animal magnetism draws zoo campers

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"Everyone, say hi to Birundi," the woman at the front of the room addressed the roomful of 4- and 5-year-olds. Birundi was their third visitor that afternoon, following Jack the pancake turtle and Lucy the armadillo. But neither had been met with quite the excitement -- or trepidation -- as Birundi.

"I'm real scared for this one," said one of the boys amid a chorus of shrieks and giggles. "I can't wait," said another.

Birundi, on the other hand, seemed at ease. "He has been visiting these kids every day for 10 years," said Tracy Gray, media and PR manager of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, of Birundi, 19, a ball python native to Africa. "He's a natural."

By now, the kids knew the rules: if they sat cross-legged and kept quiet, they would be allowed to pet Birundi with two fingers. Then a counselor would place Birundi on the floor so that they might observe his black and brown patterned body uncoiling across the copper floor.

This was the end of a typical day at Zoo Camp, a summer program for children ages 4 to 13. The camp, now in its 25th year, aims to teach about zoo animals and conservation through animal encounters, guided tours and classroom lessons. Campers sign up for one-week sessions with classes organized by age. Each age group explores a different zoo theme, such as "Savannah Animals" or "Reptiles."

Margie Marks, the zoo's curator of conservation education, developed Zoo Camp in 1988, when it served just under 100 children in two rooms. That year, camp classes were held in the basement of an old aquarium to accommodate extra students. The camp now enrolls roughly 2,000 students over 11 weeks.

"Kids and animals are a great combination, so it has always been a popular camp," Ms. Marks said. "There are lesson plans, but there is also a lot of singing, crafts and up-close visits with the animals. And the older kids learn how zoos work and how to build an exhibit."

For Ms. Marks, hearing students react to the animals is the best part of Zoo Camp. She said one camper, after learning about king penguins, asked her if female penguins were called "queen." Zoo Camp staffers keep a list of amusing things the children say, she added.

Perhaps the most memorable Zoo Camp experience occurred the summer of 2001, when campers got to witness the birth of baby anaconda snakes. "It was incredible, right in the exhibit," Ms. Marks said. "Lots of times animals are born at night or early in the morning, but these campers got to experience a live animal birth at 1 p.m."

Jordan Bamrick, 18, whose parents work at the zoo and who attended Zoo Camp for eight years, said the camp inspired her to study animal science. She said her favorite camp experience was meeting the giraffes, adding that she hopes to work with animals after graduating from college.

Back in the classroom, Birundi had been taken away and class was winding down. Before leaving, counselors asked the 4- and 5-year-olds what they have enjoyed most about Zoo Camp.

"The lions," one of the campers said.

"The elephants," said another.

"Everything," said a third.

Registration is still open for the camp, which runs until Aug. 17.

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Nikita Lalwani:


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