By: Maggie McIntyre
The North Carolina Zoo, an organizational member of EENC, is the largest natural habitat zoo in the world and is dedicated to protecting wildlife and natural areas as well as inspiring young people to do the same in their lifetime. The heart of their mission is conservation both in North Carolina and around the world, and the experiences they offer to Zoo guests help introduce people to the importance of their conservation practices.
The animals found within the Zoo are seen as ambassadors for the conservation work they do globally. They have partnered with many different organizations around the world that address local issues such as poaching and wildlife trading.
Beth Folta, the North Carolina Zoo Curator of Education has been working at the zoo since 2017 and oversees their dynamic educational experiences. They have everything from summer camps, school group programming, Snorin’ Safaris where groups can stay overnight on Zoo grounds, scouting events, and partners with the Asheboro High School’s Zoo School to open up the zoo as a living lab for students.
“We are trying to encourage others to help us in protecting the natural world,” Folta said. “Environmental education is really about protecting the wild places and the wildlife and the plants and everything that lives in them.”
Folta said the Zoo designs activities and programs around conservation and animal welfare. For example, their investigation stations, which can be found throughout the zoo as an interactive experience, each have a unique theme that showcases a different issue related to one or more of the Zoo’s species.
The Zoo’s summer camps offer a great opportunity forkids to learn and grow through the activities they get to participate in, especially when the camps are weeklong or when campers return again and again. Folta said that she has really seen the impact of education through these camps, which makes them a special part of their programming.
The North Carolina Zoo has also just launched a new program called Zoo Trekker, where visitors can complete different activities throughout their visit that inform them about different animal welfare and conservation topics. Folta described it as similar to the Junior Ranger program conducted by the National Parks Service.
“It revitalizes the Zoo, so they may have come here a dozen times before, but now it’s making them look at the Zoo in a different way,” said Folta.
The Zoo’s environmental education initiatives are not found only onsite. They have a program called UNITE, in partnership with the Cleveland Metropark Zoo that works around Kibale National Park in Uganda to train teachers in environmental education. The program has been running for more than 18 years and has become very important in their global conservation efforts as Uganda is a biodiversity hotspot.
Folta said that one of the most challenging parts of her job is tackling all of the incredible new ideas and projects that she and the other staff come up with. They are currently working on an app in partnership with East Carolina University that will make the zoo more accessible to visitors by offering self-guided learning opportunities. These opportunities will be available with audio descriptions for guests that are blind or visually impaired and will also be available in Spanish.
The app will be designed for school groups, although it will be available for all guests to use, and will offer lessons that meet the standard course of studies for each grade level. There will also be an augmented reality portion of the app that will enable guests to step into the shoes of a veterinarian or keeper at the Zoo to learn more about their responsibilities and about the different species at the zoo. She said they plan on launching the app next spring and it will make the experience of visiting more interactive for guests.
The Zoo also recently received funding to expand their planned Asia section and broke ground on the expansion on August 11, 2022. Although the expansion will take a few years, it will bring in many new species to the Zoo.
Looking after the over 1700 different individual animals that the zoo houses is an immense daily undertaking and requires a highly-skilled, productive team which Folta said she is grateful to work with. Every day is different, and the work she does remains engaging and fun.
“We all have a love for nature and we want to protect the wild places and especially the wildlife that lives in them,” she said.
The North Carolina Zoo is nestled on 2,600 wooded acres centrally located in the heart of North Carolina, just south of Asheboro in Randolph County. With 500 developed acres, it is the world's largest natural habitat zoo and one of two state-supported zoos. The North Carolina Zoo is an agency of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Photo Credits: NC Zoo
Maggie McIntyre is a first-year environmental studies student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was born and raised in Greensboro, NC with a passion for learning and being in the great outdoors.