DECATUR - After food hidden in a plastic container was placed into Larry the Lemur's cage, the young students gathered outside the cage were asked why zookeepers would want to make it tough on the animals.
"Because in the wild he'd have to dig for his food," said Evan Slunder, 11, a sixth-grader at Mount Zion Intermediate School.
In the middle of a two-week Zoo Crew session, all the fifth- and sixth-graders seem deeply engaged in the various activities, which include feeding animals, cleaning their living spaces and learning about their daily lives.
"It is an education program with a curriculum," said Sarah Reining, the zoo's education coordinator. "They are learning about habitats and ecosystems."
Every summer, Scovill Zoo enrolls children in educational programs suited for their age group. Third-graders, called "Zoo Kids," meet in one-week sessions, while the older students, fifth through eighth grade take part in two-week sessions. The classes, which began in early June, will end Aug. 10.
On a recent weekday, crew members were led into an area normally restricted to employees, where they were handed sections of tall cup plants, to be fed to the two double-humped camels.
"Half of you can feed Sasha, and half of you can feed Seymour," educator Courtney Atkins told the youngsters. "Sasha will try to steal Seymour's food. We are going to a place we don't usually get to go to."
The children are led along the Z.O.O. train tracks, stopping alongside the camel enclosure. When the camels saw the cup plants, they ambled over to the fence. The children lined up to feed the couple.
"As soon as they grab it, let go and let them have it," Atkins instructed.
Then it was time for questions.
"Have they been trying to breed Sasha?" Evan said.
The educator told him that there are plans in the future to try.
Students said they enjoy coming to Zoo Crew.
"I like getting close to the animals and learning more about them," said Jordan Underwood, a seventh-grader at Stephen Decatur Middle School.
"I like being with the animals, except for the reptiles," said Megan Easterling, a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes School. She explained that a snake once stuck its tongue at her and smelled her, leaving a lasting negative impression. "I like the cheetahs, camels and zebras, but what I really like is the little pony."
Huey Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 421-6985.