A trip to the North Carolina Zoo could lead to more than just sightings of magnificent beasts like rhinos and giraffes. The zoo hosts a variety of educational, conservation and environmental programs for people of all ages.
The programs provide opportunities to learn more about the animals as well as career paths and important life skills that can have a lasting impact, said Beth Folta, North Carolina Zoo Curator of Education.
At 2,600 acres of wooded habitat in Asheboro, it’s the world’s largest natural-habitat zoo, and it nurtures more than 1,700 animals, some of which you can interact with and learn to be a better steward of wildlife.
“We hope to provide a connection to nature and also help develop empathy for wildlife,” Folta said. “Through that, we’re also giving people the tools needed to make observations, collect data and analyze it for themselves. So they’re coming to conclusions about what’s happening with the world through their own analysis of the data that is out there.
“We do want people to be better global citizens and realize that our environment plays such a huge role in how we’re able to live our lives.”
Folta says the zoo’s educational programs can be divided into two categories:
- programs for schools, churches and community groups,
- programs for individuals and families.
“No matter what age you are, you get a little dirty or get to play with something and get to really learn the topic,” she said.
Educational, interactive programming
The Edventures at the Zoo program offers school groups immersive experiences where they can learn about animals, the need for healthy habitats, and actions they can take to help protect and preserve Earth’s natural resources.
A traveling version of that program, called Zoo to You Edventure, takes some of the animals into N.C. schools, giving students a chance to interact with them.
“We usually also have some of our animal ambassador friends with us as well, whether it’s a red-tail hawk or something like our three-banded armadillo,” Folta said. “A lot of times we’ll have one of our herps like a snake or a turtle, or we have a couple of juvenile Galapagos tortoises that go out and do programs, so (the programs are) a lot of fun.”
In addition, scouts can work to earn badges through hands-on activities with live animals and make-and-take craft activities. Scout badge programs are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there must be between 10 and 25 scouts for each program.
Exposure to STEM and animal-focused careers
But visiting the North Carolina Zoo is about more than just gaining a day’s worth of educational experience. One of the goals of the North Carolina Zoo’s programs is to educate individuals about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers that they can pursue, such as zoo keeping, veterinary jobs and beyond.
“Zoo keeping is a STEM career, that we want people to recognize and understand. There is a lot more than what some people perceive as a job about cuddling and getting to pet the animals,” she said. “We want people to understand that our animals here have a high quality of care, and the zookeepers are the No. 1 people that are helping to provide that through species specific enrichment, operant conditioning (or training), and overall care that often limits direct contact with the individual animals because they are wild animals.”
Folta also said there are many ways to care for animals other than zoo keeping or being a veterinarian.
“We have an arbor team that climbs the trees to make sure the trees are safe for people to walk under when they’re here at the zoo. We really try to promote that,” she said. “You may want to be a mechanic when you grow up, but did you know that you could be a mechanic at a zoo instead of at the local car dealership?
“You know, we want people to realize there’s a lot more going on here, and there are lots of opportunities for people to get involved.”
About the NC Zoo
The Zoo offers a wide variety of educational programs for schools, groups, and individuals, preschool through adults, many featuring animal ambassadors or hands-on activities. Learn more about free and paid program opportunities, including virtual programs.