PITTSBORO — As the group of seventh- and eighth-graders wove through chain-link enclosures, a contented white tiger named Jellybean yawned at them. In the distance, two lions called to each other.
While some summer campers are confined to school gyms and suburban playgrounds, these elementary and middle school students are getting up close to lions and tigers.
Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro has attracted students from all over the Triangle - and as far away as Michigan - to spend a week with rescued wild cats at Big Cat Safari Camp. The kids learn about different types of wild felines through tours of the 55-acre refuge or lectures by N.C. State University graduate students.
And they don't stay in a classroom.
Caroline Balan, 12, a student at Cary Christian School, leaned over a canvas and wood frame in an empty tiger enclosure on Thursday morning. She and five other campers were painting it with bright colors, prepping it for the big cats.
"How do male pugmarks look different from female pugmarks?" staff member Geoff Horsfield asked the students, using conservationist lingo for pawprints.
"They look more like an oval," Caroline answered.
As soon as they departed the enclosure, a volunteer opened the adjacent pen and tiger sisters Mona and Moki padded over, sniffing at the paint and coloring their whiskers.
Horsfield dangled a piece of beef over their heads so they would walk on the paint and blank canvas. Pawing at the beef, the cats left a few perfect prints.
"She painted with all purple - I guess she's an ECU fan and not Duke," Mackenzie Lesher-Thomas of Pittsboro, 12, said with a laugh.
Carolina Tiger Rescue has occupied Chatham County since the 1970s, and currently houses more than 50 wild cats. Although most are tigers, the rescue also cares for a black leopard, ocelots, lions, cougars, caracals, a bobcat and a serval.
They even house the rare binturong - a furry "bearcat" from Southeast Asia - and kinkajous, a South American mammal known as "honey bears."
Bryne said that visitors from at least 48 states and up to 20 countries tour the rescue annually. About 150 volunteers help run tours, feed the cats and maintain the grounds.
The camps have been running for three years and will continue next year. The staff is hoping for enough interest to launch a high school camp as well, though not enough interest could sustain that age-group camp this year.
"The goal is to introduce kids to the animals in a sanctuary kind of setting, because it's unfortunate that a lot of people fall in love with these animals in places like circuses or roadside zoos," Horsfield said. "We want to appreciate not only these animals but also the conditions they should be kept in."
Along with tours and hikes, campers watched a medical exam by a curator on a stuffed animal, and assisted with an exam on sedated wild cats. They built dioramas, pawprint molds and a cardboard deer that they plan to stuff with meat for the tigers.
One day they observed "operant conditioning," where animal keepers train cats using positive reinforcement.
"Our focus is as if the kids are budding naturalists and field biologists," Horsfield said.
Each student is faithfully keeping a journal of his or her observations.
"I see the tigers more as beautiful creatures," said Raleigh resident Arden Girardi, 13. "Before, I saw them as dangerous animals."
Along with the beauty of the wildcats, the campers learned to understand the gritty realities. As they gathered for snack, they looked mournfully at an elderly pony someone had dropped off to be euthanized for tiger meat.
At the end of the camp, the students will give their parents a tour of the refuge, discussing a few of the cats and their distinctions.
"I love watching the kids get excited about doing what they love," said volunteer Mallori McKinlay, who recently graduated from NCSU with a degree in animal science.
Joey Boulden, 13, of Durham agrees.
"This is the coolest camp I've done," Joey said.
Bettis: 919-829-8955 @whatakaracter