CINCINNATI -- It's just before sunrise when the roar of a lion awakens you. You emerge from your tent only to see giraffes nibbling from the tall trees just yards away. You must be on an African safari in Kenya or Tanzania, right?
You're in Avondale, somewhere near the corner of Vine and Erckenbrecker, where you've just spent the night at the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden offers guests the chance to sleep over with its famous residents as part of four different zoo Overnight Programs including Animal Adaptations, Africa Predator Prowl, Sleep with the Manatees and Twiga Tented Camp. Each one features different animal encounters, hands-on learning opportunities and behind-the-scenes experiences. Programs are open to groups of all ages.
On May 12, the 4-H Hiking Adventure Group from Scott County chose to take part in the zoo's newest overnight, the Twiga Tented Camp. As the group of 20 kids and four adults entered the encounter, they were greeted by their three overnight instructors and a campground complete with roaring fire. Nocturnal adventures instructor Shea Groves explained the experience is designed to simulate living in Africa and learning how to coexist with wildlife.
"So it's primarily about cohabitation," Groves said. "What it would be like to not be in such an urban landscape and see things besides squirrels -- what you would encounter and the things that conflict does to the ecosystem or to the people's lives."
Scott County 4-H agent Patrick Kelley said the overnight seemed a perfect fit for their group as they focus on leadership building and outdoor activities.
"It's all about connecting with nature and disconnecting with phones and electronics," he said.
After getting settled in camp, the group began their experience with their first animal encounter: greater flamingos. As they stood in a circle, the flamingos made their way around inside, giving special attention to some members.
"My favorite part was getting to interact with the flamingos and getting to be up and close to them," said college sophomore Rebecca Hayes. "One stood in front of me the entire time."
The guests then split into smaller groups to take an evening tour of the African animals. As they stopped at different exhibits, environmental educator Kayla Lowry spoke to her group about each animal in detail. She explained that normally the program includes a behind-the-scenes visit with the hippos, but with Fiona still being so young they needed to modify their routine. Even so, she said, the program still offers intimate encounters, since the zoo is closed to regular visitors.
"It's like being part of a VIP experience," she said. "All of our overnights are great, but I love to teach Twiga."
The word Twiga is Swahili for giraffe, Groves explained. Since the camp sits on grounds just above Giraffe Ridge, she said, the name seemed appropriate. In the morning, guests awaken to see giraffes released into their enclosure just yards away. After guests finish breakfast, she said they get to feed giraffes their morning meal. Awakening to the sights and sounds of the animals in the zoo is an amazing experience that never gets old, she said.
"When I started here, I was right across the street at the intern house, and you could hear the gibbons every morning," she said. "So you get to hear the zoo waking up when you stay here."
After their walk about, guests relaxed and roasted s'mores around the campfire. Nocturnal adventure instructor Patrick Kelley said that of all the programs, Twiga is the most flexible in structure, giving participants a little more time to hang out and get to know the instructors.
"I've been doing overnights for about three-and-a-half years now," he said. "This is my favorite because it's a little less formal and you get the chance to connect a little more with the guests."
As the sun set, the group moved on to meet some of the zoo's African ambassador animals. Groves explained that they switch out members of the zoo's interpretive collection for each overnight, so guests never know which animal they'll meet.
This particular adventure featured Satchmo the yellow-billed hornbill, Needles the African tenrec, Terra the Dumerils ground boa constrictor, and Judy the spiny-tailed lizard who is currently working on slimming down her figure. Groves said these kinds of animal encounters bring home the zoo's message of "Close enough to care."
"All of our overnights have animal ambassadors that we bring out, so they get to touch them, we talk about them and they can ask us questions," she said. "That's really where we hone that in, you get to meet the animal, touch the animal, hear about the animal's story and also what you can also do for the animals."
The final activity of the evening took guests through a CSI-style investigation called "Who Killed My Goat." The activity is designed to mimic one used by the Cheetah Conservation Fund to teach farmers in Namibia what animal killed their livestock, Groves said. In the darkness, groups of guests go out with lanterns and key cards in hand to identify the remains and determine the culprit. Groves said the graphics department went above and beyond designing the simulated goat carnage.
"So if you come, it looks like a total crime scene because you get really creeped out, but it is built really well so they can actually learn," she said. "So they see this goat here and they use the key to figure it has to be this animal."
Eighth-grader Kayla Kincaid's team was one of the first to finish identifying which animal killed the six different goats.
"This is my favorite thing we've done," she said. "I love the goat game."
Scott County 4-H agent Allison Johnson said they were all so excited about the overnight they were counting the days. She said they found out about the Cincinnati Zoo's programs while overnighting at the Newport Aquarium.
"The Twiga Camp did stand out, the overnight part of it," she said. "But also we've got two of the boys who are with us who are actually from Africa and so this kind of adventure was neat for them to come and see some of the animas they saw when they were younger."
The zoo has offered overnights for nearly 30 years, said education program manager Melinda Voss. The multiple programs bring in a variety of groups including schools. In order to include economically disadvantaged students in field trips and overnights, she said, they offer grants through the Living Classroom Education Access Fund.
"The fund serves over 11,700 students per year," she said. "Funds have been raised through individuals, Zoo La La and many more generous foundations. Schools must have at least 70 percent free or reduced-lunch student population and must complete an online application in order to receive funding."