By Stephanie Butzer
Under an autumn moon just north of Burlington, Girl Scout Troop #553 listened to lions oof – a deep, guttural long-distance noise – and tigers chuffle.
It was their first time at the Conservators’ Center.
Weeks before, with their cookie sale and yard sale proceeds in their troop account, the girls started looking for a place to spend their money. The troop leader, Emma Strickland, said she wanted to take the girls on a trip where they could learn something meaningful.
“We chose the Conservators’ Center because of what they stand for and they are a non-profit,” Strickland said. “They definitely have the animals’ best interests in mind and that’s why they’re really there. That’s their passion. We felt that our funds would be best utilized by spending them at a non-profit. We also felt we could get a more intimate experience.”
The Wilmington-based troop decided on an overnight adventure that would also allow them to take part in the Girl Scout Participation Patch Program the Center offers. This program includes fun, educational activities a troop can work on before and after they visit the Conservators’ Center. The girls were interested in obtaining a participation patch for their vests, but not all visiting scouts come to the Center for the patch.
The troop decided to an overnight at the Center, so after setting up their tents, it was time for tour. With the sun hovering over the horizon, they visited the Center’s smaller species to learn about servals, lynx, bobcats, lemurs and tree-dwelling Asian mammals called binturongs
“The girls really were intrigued by the binturongs,” Strickland said. “We loved that whole area.”
After visiting the small animals, the ground walked into a separate area, where the lions, tigers, leopards and wolves reside.
As it grew darker, in true camping fashion, the troop roasted marshmallows with their Wild Overnight Leaders. This also gave them a chance to ask to talk them about their background with wildlife, Strickland said.
“We were able to speak with the lions from afar as we were ending our night, which was awesome,” she said. “Where else do you get the experience of hearing those animals in the middle of the night?”
The following morning, the troop went on a tour of the big cats again to see them in better light. But even after this second tour, the fun was not over.
“We went back to the shelter and the girls got to make some enrichment for the animals,” Strickland said.
Enrichment can be anything from a decorated box with treats inside to a piece of fun-smelling cardboard.
With animal keeper-approved materials, the girls painted cardboard boxes with non-toxic paint and spritzed them with fun scents. After they had finished making their creations, Wild Overnight Leaders offered the boxes to the animals. Strickland said the girls loved seeing the animals play with their crafts.
“They felt proud that they made something interesting enough for the animals to be so intrigued by,” Strickland said.
Megan McGrath, programs supervisor, said this was an important part of their visit to the Center.
“We try to give them a hands-on experience with something they can make or do that they can see the direct impact on the animal,” she said.
Other troops have visited the Center to participate in other themes, like “A Day in the Life of a Keeper” and “Nature Detectives.” The Center staff collaborates with troop leaders to decide what is best for that particular group of kids. Providing various themes also offers Girl Scouts the opportunity to return and focus on different topics in wildlife.
The Center launched the overnight program last year and has already had an overwhelmingly positive response to them, McGrath said.
“Even things that would seem like an inconvenience from the outside – the lions oofing during the night or wolves howling – the scouts wake up and they’re like, ‘that was the coolest alarm clock ever,’” she said.