JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Last Saturday at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Makaela Jenkins held a small animal that looked like a hedgehog in the palm of her hand. She encouraged wary visitors to give it some love.

"It feels like a toothbrush," she said.

Makaela, 16, was full of information about the tenrec, a mammal found in Madagascar and parts of the African mainland. She said the 7-year-old in her hand goes by the name Wednesday.

"That's her favorite day of the week," she said.

Wednesdays, she said, are when Wednesday gets her favorite treats — large worms.

Makaela, who attends Lee High School, is one of 14 Jacksonville youths who work at the zoo as part of its city-funded Wildlife Immersion and Leadership Development, or W.I.L.D., program. Started in 2016, the teen employment program incorporates leadership development, public-speaking training and studies in zoology and horticulture. The students are not required to have animal-related career goals, but some do.

W.I.L.D. is for youth 14 to 18 who live or attend school or church in 10 Jacksonville ZIP codes targeted by the Jacksonville Journey anti-crime initiative, mostly on the Northside and Northwest areas of the city. Applicants go through a rigorous application process and work on Saturdays during the school year and full time in the summer months.

First-year students are in the learning process and are called stewards. In the second year they become ambassadors and take on leadership roles. In the final year of the program, they will create educational outreach programs in their home communities, including bringing small animals on tour.

Marquese Fluellen, 18, is in his second year. He has already been recognized by the North American Association for Environmental Education as one of the "30 Under 30," a program that recognizes young individuals taking leadership positions in their community to make a difference for the planet.

"It's been a great experience," said Marquese, who attends Wolfson High School. "I always wanted a career in animal handling but didn't know where to start."

W.I.L.D. students typically only interact with small animals, but Marquese once helped feed a rhino at the zoo. That experience, he said, was "breathtaking."

He applied after his mother saw a brochure for W.I.L.D. He was amazed by the many potential careers he has been exposed to since, he said, and grateful for the skills he has learned that will help him in the future.

"Wow, a lot of new fields," he said. "It's the best thing that ever happened. ... Now I know I want to focus on animal handling."

Kamryn Wiggins, 16, another W.I.L.D. member, wants to be a veterinarian. But she needed more experience dealing with animals and the public.

"I used to be really shy," she said.

Now she is "hands-on with the animals" and regularly approaches zoo visitors to tell them what she has learned, she said. Baby alligators, for instance, have their own personalities, just like humans. One of them at the zoo is calm and handles crowds well, but another "has an attitude," she said.

"It makes me want to be a vet even more," said Kamryn, who attends First Coast High School.

Joshua Coleman, 16, wants to be a child psychologist, but loves animals. He formed a conservation club at Terry Parker High School.

"I've always been passionate about it," he said.

As a member of W.I.L.D., he's always talking about the zoo and encouraging his friends to visit and doesn't understand why more people don't spend time there.

"Enjoy the zoo!" he said.

W.I.L.D. coordinator Chris Conner gets to watch the transformation of the students from unsure beginners to knowledgeable zoo interpreters.

"At first they're kind of scared and timid. Six months or a year later they can tell you more about animals and plants than I can," he said. "The fusion of kids and animals is the best of both worlds. I have the perfect job."


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com