Satisfying a hungry appetite for learning

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The leopards lounged, the penguins dived and the monkeys swung during an otherwise uneventful hot, rainy morning at the Baltimore Zoo. But a loud, echoing roar from afar indicated that something exciting was about to take place in the lions' den.

J.B. was about to "kill."

First she circled, then sniffed, then nibbled. Finally, after careful consideration, the lioness finally felled the 9-foot-tall fake giraffe with one powerful swipe of her paw.

The papier-mache creature, with its weed-trimmer box body and legs made of cardboard carpet rolls, was no match for the lioness. It was the zoo's latest and largest rendition of a lion pinata, stuffed with large chunks of meat, lard and blood and offering the king (or in this case queen) of the jungle a little break from the zoo routine.

"This is definitely one of the coolest things we've ever done," said 14-year-old Kristin Abt of Baltimore, who is volunteering at the zoo this summer with project WILD, an educational program that teaches teen-agers about careers in wildlife or animal care. The 28 students in the program, ages 14 to 17, crafted this event as an attempt to provide the lionesses with some variety. Or "animal enrichment," as the project organizers call it.

"The animals would have a lot of different stimuli in their wild environment, and when they're in an enclosure in a zoo we try to simulate that excitement that they would have in their life," said volunteer manager Karrie Kovaleski.

The teens have been working on the project for about two weeks, but before they got to the fun part, they had to learn some basics.

"First we had to talk about what kinds of stuff that the lions need," said Abt. "Like we had to take all the tape off [the materials] so that it wouldn't be harmful for them. We had non-toxic paint on it, and took all the staples out so it would be safe for them."

Then, the students began assembling the zoo's newest addition. They put all of the pieces of the giraffe together and then painted it.

"One of the real giraffes [at the zoo] has a butterfly shape on its chest, so they made that butterfly pattern on it to make it more realistic," said Byron Barnes, 14, of Randallstown.

"The hardest part was definitely trying to have it balance out, because our head was top heavy," said Emily Carambelas, 15, of Glen Arm.

Yesterday morning, masterpiece in hand, the kids entered the lions' den and placed their precarious giraffe underneath a tree. Then they gave it some guts by stuffing it with coffee-mug-sized chunks of horsemeat and lard.

And at 10 a.m., before the project WILD kids, zookeepers and a crowd of eager onlookers, the lionesses were released into the pen.

Perhaps because J.B. was not quite convinced of the authenticity of her visitor or was not so hungry, she never fully attacked the giraffe. After knocking it down, she spent about 10 minutes poking around, sticking her head in the cardboard neck and pawing at it. Then she just sat down beside it, leaving her den mate Jewel waiting for her turn to investigate.

"I think they liked it," said Gil Myers, one of the senior keepers of the zoo's mammal department. But "because we've done it before, it's just like a child who gets given the same toy over and over again, eventually they get tired of it."

In the past, the zoo has provided the lionesses with zebra and antelope pinatas, "but they've never been quite that large. We thought the size would really attract them. And then one thing that really works well is putting their diet in it," said Myers.

Despite the anti-climactic finish to the project, it was still deemed a success. "This particular project fit well because it served a need for the zoo," Kovaleski said, "but it also taught the kids about enrichment, which is a pretty fundamental part of animal care."

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