Wildlife center opens visitors’ eyes to bigger picture

If Gail Abrams had her way, she would spend a lot more time outdoors. And she’d take you with her.

Abrams, the executive director of the Piedmont Wildlife Center, spends her days spreading the message that spending time outside is critical to a healthy environment, a stronger generation of children and everyone’s mental health.

“When wildlife suffer, we all suffer,” she said. “Pollution that kills them affects us all. We have an impact on our own environment and we need to wake up and change our behaviors.”

The 12-year-old center, funded primarily by camp and class fees and donations, operates out of a log cabin and two other buildings in the heart of Durham Parks and Recreation’s 82-acre Leigh Farm Park. It is dedicated to education, conservation and promoting the care of sick and injured wildlife.

The center has grown into a force dedicated to teaching children and adults about the great outdoors – and why it’s important to get technology-tethered kids outside more. Studies show that most children spend less than 30 minutes a week outdoors.

Jace Hall-Stanger might have become one of those kids had he not decided at age 16 to join PWC as a counselor in training. Now, at 18, he has emerged as a mentor for kids in camps and other programs and plans to become a wildlife educator or nature mentor.

Being outside provides an experience you could never get indoors or on any computer.

Jace Hall-Stanger, a mentor for children at the Piedmont Wildlife Center

“People just don’t want to take a walk in the woods anymore,” he said. “I think a lot of it is peer pressure, where technology is the first place where you go to have fun now. Being outside provides an experience you could never get indoors or on any computer.”

PWC offers dozens of programs for children starting as young as age 2, as well as for teens and adults. Adults can learn to harvest wild food, take an evening owl prowl, mentor youth and take leadership classes. For teens, the center offers a variety of camping and backpacking experiences and specialized field trips. For the little ones, there’s a Dragonfly Walk, a monthly opportunity for parents, guardians and grandparents to slow down a bit and take children for a walk to see birds, frogs, turtles and, of course, dragonflies.

PWC also offers a birthday party venue, where up to 20 kids can spend time with the center’s team of more than 20 wildlife ambassadors, animals that were rescued from injury or donated. A team of native owls, hawks and snakes, a rabbit, a bearded dragon, turtles, a dove, a handful of chickens and a possum named Penelope help teach people in real time what they need know about wildlife.

PWC has taken a lead role in a major study aimed at stemming the decline in the population of the Eastern box turtle – the victim of human encroachment on its habitat.

Eight turtles are being tracked via special transmitters attached to their backs. By studying where the turtles go, what they eat and where they lay their eggs, researchers hope to find ways to spare the turtles from their biggest threat: humans.

“We’re building too many roads,” Abrams said. “Turtles are constantly being hit and killed by cars. There is a lot of pollution in the wetlands, which impacts where they eat and lay their eggs. When a company builds a subdivision, soil movers pile dirt up and the turtles get caught up in that, buried under mounds of soil.”

The center is developing a turtle ID app that will allow anyone in the area to identify a turtle with their smartphone, then report the sighting to the center – they keep track of places where box turtles are found.

The center operates year round, with a staff of five and a team of 20 seasonal camp counselors and other contractors.

On Abrams’ wish list this holiday season: enough money to buy field guides for participants, storybooks about wildlife and food for the ambassadors and other wildlife in the park and to strengthen the conservation program.

Piedmont Wildlife Center

364 Leigh Farm Road

Durham, NC 27707


Contact: Gail Abrams, 919-489-0900

Description: Piedmont Wildlife Center inspires people to develop a positive lifelong connection with the natural world and encourages active engagement in conservation. We accomplish this through a community-oriented approach to nature education, leadership development and conservation science.

Donations needed: Funds are needed to offer scholarships for children to attend weeklong summer camp ($300/child), purchase monitoring equipment to fund a box turtle release study ($1,000) and to purchase native plants needed to restore wildlife habitat ($500).

Volunteers needed: A volunteer coordinator is needed to help direct our volunteer program by communicating with volunteer prospects, coordinating volunteer open houses, assigning volunteers to needed tasks/projects and cultivating relationships with volunteers.

$10 would buy: A field guide for the education program, food for one week for our education reptiles, food for one day for education raptors, a basking light for a reptile educator, or 1-2 native plants for our demonstration garden.

$20 would buy: Two children’s storybooks for education program or four native plants for demonstration garden.

$50 would buy: Toner for our color printer, supplies to handle our education raptors, supplies for our summer camp program or one month of website support.

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