Category Archives: Conservators’ Center internship

A roar in the night: overnights with big cats at the Conservators’ Center

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Ra Lion watches visitors from his platform. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

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.

Cole Bearcat peeks through her enclosure to a keeper who holds some bananas for her. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Cole Bearcat peeks through her enclosure to a keeper who holds some bananas for her. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

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.

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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.

Scouts have the opportunity to participate in the Patch Program and ear this participatory patch. Photo submitted.

Scouts have the opportunity to participate in the Patch Program and ear this participatory patch. Photo submitted.

“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.

Spicing up the season: Conservators’ Center holds annual Pumpkin Prowl

Arthur Tiger plays with a pumpkin in his hammock. Guests were encouraged to carve their own pumpkins before entering the facility so they could "give" them to the animals. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Arthur Tiger plays with a pumpkin in his hammock. Guests were encouraged to carve their own pumpkins before entering the facility so they could “give” them to the animals. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

By Stephanie Butzer

While it is the season of pumpkin spice lattes, something different was flavoring the atmosphere at the Conservators’ Center last Saturday.

On Nov. 2, the Center kicked off the second annual Pumpkin Prowl. The nonprofit organization rescues wildlife, preserves endangered species and provides educational tours ranging from personalized photo tours to general facility tours.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, pumpkins filled with scents and meat were placed in almost every animal enclosure.

“Just like us, animals need things to keep them lively and keep themselves excited about their daily life,” said Wildlife Educator Jesse Anderson, who created enrichment ideas for the animals. “It’s exciting to be able to provide them with new and interesting things and get them excited about things but it’s really important for the animal to maintain that interesting benefit between its daily life and having new things enriching its life or brought into its life.”

Pumpkins became a successful and seasonal way for animals like lions, tigers, binturongs to have sensory enrichment. Anderson said major parts of designing the enrichment included taking into account the animal’s personality and deciding how to creatively place the fruits around the enclosures. He focused on two types of enrichment when planning the Pumpkin Prowl: physical and sensory enrichment.

“The physical enrichment are the pumpkins hanging and swinging and things that are in precarious places so that if they knock them down, they will start rolling,” Anderson said. “With the young, playful cats we will use more of the physical enrichment, whereas with some of the animals that are a little bit older, they really like the sensory enrichment.”

The event was limited to the Center’s volunteer force before last year, when they decided to open the facility to visitors who would watch the animals tumble, crush and stick their faces in pumpkins, all of which were donated by multiple pumpkin farms.

Pumpkin farms from around the area donated more than 250 pumpkins to the Center's Pumpkin Prowl.

Pumpkin farms from around the area donated more than 250 pumpkins to the Center’s Pumpkin Prowl.

“We decided it would be a great opportunity for the public to see how we work with our animals and how we enrich their lives,” said Julia Wagner, senior director of administration at the Center. “The animals had a great time running around, throwing pumpkins everywhere and this year we opened it up for two days, which has been so far very successful.”

The next and last Pumpkin Prowl will be Nov. 9 and Wagner said the Center is expecting just as many people as the first event. As the weather gets colder, the animals become more active so the Center looks into doing big events such as this during the cooler months.

“This is a great event for families and for adults,” Wagner said. “We really work to make our large events like this friendly to all different types of people, whether it be a family with small children, a young couple, whether it be friends wanting something to go do so we offer food trucks, beer and it’s a really great opportunity to get out and enjoy the weather.”

Dania Ermentrout came to the Center for the first time for the Pumpkin Prowl event. She said her favorite part of the experience was the lions rolling around with the pumpkins.

“I really wasn’t sure how all the different animals would react to the stimulation, but it was funny how some of them just wanted [the pumpkins] filled with meat and the other ones thought it was just this really amusing play toy,” Ermentrout said.

She said being so close to the animals became an intimate experience for her and her 4-year-old son, Asher, who continuously claimed the New Guinea Singing Dogs were the best animals at the Center because they were his friends.

“I felt like the animals are much more active and you can see them interact with their environments more,” Ermentrout said.

One of the serval brothers plays with a hanging gourd.

One of the serval brothers plays with a hanging gourd.

The Pumpkin Prowl was a walkabout event, where visitors were welcome to explore the facility at their own pace. Meanwhile, guides answered questions, helped people learn more about the Center’s mission and animals and ensured both animals and people were safe at all times.

The Conservators’ Center will have a similar event, called the Tree Toss, Jan. 4 and Jan. 11. In the past, substituting pine trees for pumpkins caused just as much excitement.

“We are, each year, adding more and more events to the calendar,” Wagner said. “We want to ensure that somebody who wants to come visit our animals has a lot of unique ways to do that throughout the year because visitors are the main source of what is funding our operations here at this point. Coming and participating at the Pumpkin Prowl is a direct connect to helping us connect to the animals.”

Please look here for more photos and video.

Eye of the tiger: Runners greet mud, obstacles at The Wild Stampede

By Stephanie Butzer

Heat by heat, runners at The Wild Stampede conquered numerous obstacles, uneven and slippery terrain and lots of mud.

The mud and obstacle 5K, created by Legend Race, attracted more than 150 people of all ages and running levels to the Conservators’ Center grounds.

Just thirty seconds into the race, participants in The Wild Stampede had to face three large and muddy hills. The third heat of runners had to slip and slide their way through the course since two previous groups had made the mounds slick.

Just thirty seconds into the race, participants in The Wild Stampede had to face three large and muddy hills. The third heat of runners had to slip and slide their way through the course since two previous groups had made the mounds slick. All multimedia by Stephanie Butzer.

After they finished the race, participants had the chance to walk around the facility and visit the Center’s animals. But there was a great challenge to fight through first.

Runners met their first obstacle — three muddy hills with water on the opposite side — within the first minute of the race. After a half-run, half-swim through a pond, they entered the woods where the obstacles were more difficult and complex.

One of the highlights of the race, as well as one of the hardest tasks, was a lake crossing. Participants had to cross by hanging from a fire hose. Many different techniques were used — some went headfirst or feet-first while others decided to simply swim.

Participant Chris Roach said he had done this sort of exercise before, but this obstacle tested him the most.

“It can be really challenging cause I did it when I went to boot camp for the Army and I remember going across that rope,” he said. “But this out here, it’s like, wow.”

Roach said he had participated in the Greensboro Zombie Mud Run the weekend before and said he enjoyed The Wild Stampede more because of the animals.

After the race, participants and spectators were invited into the facility to view some of the Conservators’ Centers animals. Arthur Tiger, a rare white tiger, entertained some guests with his immensity and toothy yawns.

After the race, participants and spectators were invited into the facility to view some of the Center’s animals. Arthur Tiger, a rare white tiger, entertained some guests with his immensity and toothy yawns.

“[In the Greensboro race], you felt short-changed,” Roach said. “Here, it’s like you get to see not only the animals, but you get to meet all these different people. Everything here is just so much better. It’s far better than being chased by a zombie.”

Further down the course, the runners experienced obstacles like a log throw and an A-frame. The race ended with hills similar to those at the start and a long flat stretch to the finish line.

“It was great —challenging at points,” Roach said. “You don’t really know sometimes what’s ahead of you so it kind of surprises you.”

After the runners received a medal and T-shirt, many entered the grounds or had lunch, courtesy of Manna Concessions.

Leah Gardener, a participant and graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said The Wild Stampede was her first mud run.

“It was really cool when we passed the animals on the last leg,” Gardener said. “It was really good. They did a great job.”

Click here for The Wild Stampede photo gallery.

Conservators’ Center holds obstacle 5K for the wild at heart

One of the obstacles in The Wild Stampede was for participants to get across a lake via fire house. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

One of the obstacles in The Wild Stampede was for participants to get across a lake via fire house. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

By Stephanie Butzer

There are few races that incorporate balance beams, mud hill crawls and rope climbs. There are even fewer that guide runners past exotic animals.

The Conservators’ Center, in conjunction with Legend Race, a local company that constructs unique races, will host The Wild Stampede, a mud and obstacle 5K that runs along the Center’s outer border Sept. 21.

Some of the obstacles will mimic toys in the animal enclosures, such as the A-frame, a common plaything for tigers to run up and down.

Fred Augustine and his wife, Gail Augustine, created Legend Race, a obstacle racing company focused on low costs for intense local races. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Fred Augustine and his wife, Gail Augustine, created Legend Race, a obstacle racing company focused on low costs for intense local races.

Fred Augustine, founder of Legend Race, has been constructing the course since late June. This will be the first race the Center has held, and Augustine said it will be a challenge the whole family can enjoy. He said the run is a good mud run for both beginners and experienced athletes.

“This won’t be timed because we want more families to come and tour the animals and get a feel for what’s up here,” Augustine said.

Maximus MacClennen, the Center’s coordinator, said the question his team asked themselves when planning the race was how to make The Wild Stampede more entertaining than the dozens of other mud runs in North Carolina.

“It’s like, you can go out to a field and do your mud run and leave or you can come here, do your mud run and you might hear some lions and tigers while you’re doing it and then afterwards you can take the whole family on a tour,” MacClennen said.

Two groups of Elon University students — Service Learning students and Leadership Fellows — came out to the Center to assist with digging trenches and moving large parts of the obstacles into place Aug. 16 and Aug. 23, respectively.

At a trial run, two men attempt to scale a wooden - and slippery -  A-frame. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

At a trial run, two men attempt to scale a wooden – and slippery – A-frame.

“The 23 of us not only arrived at the Center with jittery determination, but also with uneasy anticipation,” said freshman Kelly August, a Leadership Fellow. “As a member of the staff explained our tasks for the day, howls and unrecognizable growls sounded in the distance.”

After working for hours on the obstacles, August and the rest of her group were able to see the animals inside the compound.

“The dedication of the volunteers and workers at the Center left the biggest mark on me,” August said. “It was easy for the 23 of us to complain about the heat or the bugs, but to those who give entirely of themselves to this cause, it was just another day doing what they love.”

Freshman Dexter Blank, also a Leadership Fellow, said he thinks the Center deserves more recognition for its animal care, so hopefully the race will bring in more positive publicity.

“The event will be one-of-a-kind and I have no doubts that it will be a success,” Blank said. “I believe that our group was very helpful, worked hard and represented Elon in a very respectful manner.”

The race fee is $50 and includes a walkabout of the compound. Spectators can pay a small fee to enter. Sixty percent of the proceeds go to supporting the animals the Center cares for, including big cats, wolves and binturongs.

Sounds erupt from the Conservators’ Center last Saturday

Kira Lion shows off her huge teeth at The Conservators' Center "Sounds of the Center" event April 27. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Kira Lion shows off her huge teeth at The Conservators’ Center “Sounds of the Center” event April 27. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

By Stephanie Butzer

With a single human yell, the Conservators’ Center comes alive. Staff and volunteers around the grounds join in before their voices are drowned by 20 lions “oofing,” three wolves howling and nine tigers chuffling.

“The ones who know them best are the best ones to get them going,” said Mandy Matson, director of communications at the Center.

Over and over, the Conservators’ Center received feedback from visitors about how the sounds they heard at the center had been the highlight of their experience.

Community members were invited to attend the Center’s “Sound of the Center” event April 27 to hear lions, wolves, tigers and New Guinea Singing Dogs communicate with each other and people.

Visitors were encouraged to wander the trails at their own pace and listen to staff members talk about how and why the different animals communicated, what they were saying to each other and to the people and why their sounds are so important.

Freya Tiger examines groups of visitors as they watch her interact with the lions that share her enclosure.

Freya Tiger examines groups of visitors as they watch her interact with the lions that share her enclosure.

Meghan McGrath, a staff member who helps in Outreach Services, organized “Sounds of the Center,” but not without a team of enthusiastic and passionate staff members behind her.

“This would not have been possible at all, with any planning that I had done, with all the execution I had, without the community and team of people we have here,” McGrath said. “You always have hiccups, but even without them, we can’t do things like this without our volunteers coming out and supporting us.”

The idea for the event first came into bloom when McGrath became fascinated with introducing the community that had already seen the Center as an entertainment destination to a more education-heavy experience.

“This was our first experiment with seeing how (far in) education we can go and how far we can go in this direction and still have people be motivated to come out and meet our animals,” McGrath said.

The staff members were scattered around the Center, each engaging in an intellectual conversation about various animals. Their passion was evident as they described the animals as they would a friend.

Kim and Frank Pyne have worked with the Conservators’ Center since 2007 and during “Sounds of the Center” they spoke to visitors from inside the wolf enclosure.

The mixed pride rests as the "Sounds of the Center" event comes to a close April 27.

The mixed pride rests as the “Sounds of the Center” event comes to a close April 27.

“Wolves make an awful lot of noise and in every bit of social behavior that they do, there are noises,” Kim Pyne said.

When wolves were in a disagreement, she said they rarely partake in a serious fight.

“What you will see is a lot of sounds, a lot of noise, a lot of posturing and suddenly huge big-sized-looking animals because they’re fluffing their fur out to make themselves look big and scary. It’s all sounds and noise and signifies nothing, to quote Macbeth.,” she said.

Staff and volunteers explained the different howls of their three white wolves and how, from across the Center, they could identify which animal had howled. Down the walkway, other members pointed out the small gruffs and “oofs” the lions and tigers made.

At the end of the night, the staff heard a lot of positive feedback about the loose structure of the evening event. Keepers stayed afterwards to talk to people who wanted to return to see another “Sounds of the Center.”

“Little things like that are what makes us so successful,” McGrath said. “It’s not necessary for us to succeed (with the event), but it really helps reinforce the idea that were community and that we all work together.”

For all pictures, click here.