I am surrounded by various skulls of animals found in the Pacific Northwest. The atmosphere is full of inquiry and excitement. Students move around a middle school common room, stopping to look at various booths showcasing different fields of study in science. My colleagues and I are at the Woodland Park Zoo booth, showing students examples of local carnivores. We have replica skulls, faux fur, and feces samples, along with photos of local carnivores taken by camera traps. We also have a model of a camera trap for students to investigate. Visitors to the booth are asked questions about the animals in the provided pictures and challenged to identify the replica skulls.
It is clear that guests of every age are intrigued and excited to learn more about their backyard wildlife. This booth is part of the Coexisting with Carnivores program from Woodland Park Zoo that partners with the city of Issaquah, Washington. I was fortunate enough to intern with this grant-funded collaboration, made possible with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services Museums for America program.
As another part of the Coexisting with Carnivores Program, students at Issaquah middle schools formulate questions about the wildlife in their community. They can either set up camera traps or develop other methods to explore their questions. Many of their teachers also set up cameras to show students the variety of animals that could be sighted. Camera traps are relatively easy to install, making this a simple and effective tool for citizen science. There are even online tutorials by eMammal to assist with the setup.
Camera traps open up a secret world to students and continue to spark their curiosity by revealing different animals’ behavior. Students also contribute to real-world citizen science, downloading and submitting their photos to eMammal. For example, one set of students were thrilled to see raccoons passing through their teacher’s backyard near a forested area. This online camera trap database allows anyone to download their camera trap photos with the possibility that their data would be used in a real-world study.
Camera Traps in a Virtual Setting
Camera traps can also be used to show the hidden lives of misunderstood carnivores. As a Wolf Haven International volunteer, I facilitate guests’ unique experiences as they observe the wolves in our sanctuary. Wolf Haven is home to endangered wolf species and wolves and wolf dogs who have come out of complex domestic situations. Guests can experience guided walking visits through part of the sanctuary. While all animals are in their enclosures, guests may see some wolves and hear their beautiful vocalizations. We share stories of some of the animals with our guests, thus building empathy for wolves and showing that each animal can have a unique personality and is a vital member of his or her pack or family.
Now that we face new challenges due to the pandemic, Wolf Haven has transitioned to a virtual platform, leading me to facilitate these experiences, along with wolf and other carnivore ecosystem science courses, over Zoom calls with students or private groups. We aim to help students connect to a world that may seem hard to reach when they must often remain inside due to COVID-19. When facilitating these ecosystem-based courses, I often share images, sounds, and wildlife behaviors and describe how this relates to ecosystems and the natural world. When I hear students’ excitement through their questions—for example, Why do wolves hunt in a family or pack? How do they communicate with one another?—as well as their responses to the images of wildlife they see, and often their silent reverence when hearing wolves howl, I feel grateful that there are new ways to share these important wildlife stories.
The coexistence concepts facilitated by Wolf Haven are another vital facet of camera trap education. This is accomplished by students realizing that certain animals, possibly deemed dangerous or pests in their community, are not motivated by the same goals as humans but by their typical routines and behaviors (Madden, 2004; Schuttler et al., 2019). In Washington state, students can view camera trap photos of wolverines, wolves, and cougars, animals often associated with fear and the unknown. Allowing them to observe these animals’ behaviors can give them a firmer foundation for why they are essential to Washington’s ecosystem. Students also hear about animals’ journeys, further observing them as individuals who have a purpose on our earth and a story to share.
This method of observing animals is a way for students to see their place in a much larger ecosystem. There is strong evidence suggesting that people only connect with what they know and see. In the absence of these connections, individuals have difficulty recognizing the patterns of extinction and loss of biodiversity rapidly occurring in our world. Seeing patterns of change, like less plant diversity or fewer cold days, is vital to fostering a sense of concern about conservation issues (Schuttler et al., 2019.) For example, if a change in seasons occurs earlier than expected, it could result in flowers blooming sooner, which impacts pollinators, changing a balanced ecosystem. As a volunteer, I can point out these specific changes in our ecosystem and connect them to how human and nonhuman animals may be affected. This activity allows students to connect to the outside world, which is vital during COVID-19 when students are socially distanced from their teachers, peers, and even from going outside.
My experiences as an intern in the Coexisting with Carnivores program have made me realize how beneficial camera traps could be for virtual education. As a volunteer at Wolf Haven International, I have witnessed students’ curiosity and excitement when learning about animals that they might not have any connection to, such as students who live in highly populated cities who may have seen birds and squirrels but may not know they have urban carnivores like coyotes in their neighborhood. Imagine if they could connect to a local camera trap project like Conservation Northwest’s and the new program that Woodland Park Zoo will be starting called the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project. Students could also set up a camera trap in their backyard and share photos virtually with their classmates. What kind of exciting and unique questions could they come up with about the animal behaviors they witness? It’s only a click away!
I would like to thank Faye Peebles and Katie Remine, who helped with the review of this piece and their partnerships and supervision during these experiences. This work was conducted as a part of graduate work through Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and in conjunction with Woodland Park Zoo. Special thanks to my instructor Shafkat Khan for support and advice.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “OR-7- A Lone Wolf’s Story” (2021), https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Gray-Wolf/OR7-Story.
Conservation Northwest, “Wildlife Monitoring” (2021), https://www.conservationnw.org/our-work/wildlife/wildlife-monitoring/.
eMammal. “See Wildlife, Do Science” (2017), https://emammal.si.edu/.
Madden, Francine, “Creating Coexistence between Humans and Wildlife: Global Perspectives on Local Efforts to Address Human-Wildlife Conflict,” Human Dimensions of Wildlife 9, no. 4 (2004): 247-257.
Schuttler, S. G., et al., “Citizen Science in Schools: Students Collect Valuable Mammal Data for Science, Conservation, and Community Engagement,” Bioscience 69, no. 1 (2019): 69-79.
Smithsonian eMammal, “Camera Setup 2016” (2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW3XGjq3l7A&t=334s.
Woodland Park Zoo, “Coexisting with Carnivores” (2021), https://www.zoo.org/coexisting.
Woodland Park Zoo, “The Seattle Urban Carnivore Project” (2021), http://www.zoo.org/seattlecarnivores.