Jack in the Masai Mara National Reserve

Jack in the Masai Mara National Reserve

Carrie McBride
Jun 29, 2010

As we celebrate the waning days of outdoor month here on Ohdeedoh we are delighted to share Jack's story. This little boy from Philadelphia has been living in a tent camp in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve for the last six months. Jack's animal behaviorist dad, Andy, is doing fieldwork on hyena vocal communication with support from his cinematographer mom, Jen. Permanent structures are not permitted in the Mara Triangle, hence the tent camp, which has nine footprints for tents, an outdoor, unheated shower, and a "choo" (Swahili for "water closet").

The camp consists of four living tents for the research team, a lab tent which houses documents, manuals and equipment, a kitchen tent with a butane stove and dish washing rack and a food storage tent which was recently reinforced by a local tailor after it was looted by baboons. Jack's family lives in a 9x9' tent with a desk, a shelf for books and bins, a small bed for Jen and Andy and another for Jack, all built by a Nairobi carpenter. Jack's nanny, Alice, is from Nairobi and lives in a neighboring tent which Jen and Andy picked up at REI.

Jack has a plastic potty and he bathes in rainwater in a small tub that the family uses to wash their face and hands and launder their clothing. Anticipating their long work days, Jen and Andy brought along a range of toys and objects that could sustain Jack's focus for longer periods of time, including books, writing and drawing materials, and a few carefully selected toys conducive to long-form, self-guided, imaginary play. Jack also has his harmonica and a few transitional objects. With his parents assuring him that his bed is just like at home, Jack quickly adjusted to nights in the tent, routinely sleeping through the sounds of roaring lions, elephants tearing down trees and giggling hyenas.

Back in Philadelphia, Jack doesn't have a yard beyond a small patch of grass and a little garden. In Kenya, he has 24-hour access to a campsite full of grasshoppers, butterflies, giant moths, salamanders, toads, termites, mongooses, warthogs and endless species of birds and ants. He loves observing grazers like giraffes, buffalo, impala and topi, and watching them notice him. Every night, hippos walk up from the Mara River to graze and wallow in a nearby ravine, hyenas and a local genet snoop around the kitchen tent for scraps and a family of elephants tromp through the surrounding woods. A large group of pygmy mongooses live in camp and scurry around the tents in the morning while a mother warthog brings her five children into camp to graze every afternoon.

Jen writes, "I think Jack gets that we live with these animals, that our home is inside their home, and I think he really enjoys that feeling. He knows all the animals' sounds by heart, and regularly picks one to imitate for a whole day (often getting angry if we call him Jack). So I think the animals have really captured his imagination, and also triggered whatever capacity for empathy he possesses at this stage (via role-playing, often pretending to be a mommy of whatever animal he's chosen). He's learned what a carnivore is, what an herbivore is, and which animals belong to those categories. He does an excellent hyena whoop and hippo chortle. It's just been a total immersion for him, and he's very visibly soaking it up."

(Images: Jen Schneider, used with permission. Visit Jen at Touchy Films)

- Roni Shapira Ben-Yoseph

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