Article by Michelle Balz
Photos courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo
Twenty Girl Scouts stand in the Nocturnal House kitchen, an area of the Cincinnati Zoo most visitors never see. It is 8:30 p.m., three hours past closing. All eyes are intently on the zoo instructor as she reaches into a bucket of live mealworms and, grinning, pops one in her mouth. “Remember when you eat these for breakfast in the morning to make sure you chew them really well or they will crawl back up!” she teases.
This is not a local “Fear Factor” episode and these children are not breaking any rules. They are participating in the Nocturnal Adventures overnight program at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
For more that 15 years children have been sleeping at the Cincinnati Zoo. Kate Aug, program coordinator for the past two years, says the Nocturnal Adventures program was the first of its kind in the area. School groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, birthday parties, and even college groups enjoy the overnight experience. The guests are led by an instructor on tours around the zoo and spend the night sleeping in one of the buildings.
Aug says the best part of the program for the participants is “watching the instructors become excited about nature.” She believes enthusiasm is contagious and the children develop a love and respect for animals and their habitats. Participants become “immersed in the experience,” says Aug, “it’s not short-lived.”
There are three different programs offered through Nocturnal Adventures. “Animal Adaptations” for younger students explores the many ways animals survive in their habitat. In “Sleep With The Manatees” older children learn the importance of biodiversity or the variety of life on earth. “Wolf Woods Overnight” discusses food webs and the delicate balance each species plays in an ecosystem.
The central focus of all the programs is learning about nature. Kate Aug says the best part of her job is the opportunity to combine education and the environment, “I am able to implement an environmental education curriculum within a diverse community setting.” She has an education degree with an emphasis in experiential education, focusing on how to create learning opportunities for the many different ways children learn. Aug says, “It is beyond lecturing…very hands on.”
The instructors are required to spend the night at the zoo with the children, although they sleep in a different area. Do not expect hotel accommodations during an overnight program. Facilities offered to guests are minimal. “I call it camping inside,” says Aug. “Just enough to wash your face and crash on the floor”.
Every year approximately 11,000 people participate in one of the zoo overnight programs. While the average students are in primary school the program has welcomed high school clubs, groups of zoo employees, and even sororities. According to Aug many of the participants hear about Nocturnal Adventures through word of mouth.
The Nocturnal Adventures overnight program truly offers a unique and intimate zoo experience. Regardless of age the memories of the adventure will remain with the students for years to come. Kate Aug hopes the environmental education message will be remembered as well.
And for parents concerned about the nutritional content of mealworms, do not worry. A continental breakfast serves a selection of cereals, milk, orange juice, and bananas. The mealworms are reserved for more permanent zoo residents, the animals.
Click here to download more information (.pdf) on Nocturnal Adventures at the Cincinnati Zoo.