BROOKSVILLE - They'd observed baby manatees having lunch during a behind-the-scenes tour of Lowry Park Zoo.
They'd checked out hawk chicks at a rehabilitation center in Crystal River.
But the teenage campers who signed up for Brooksville rehabber Linda Christian's first wildlife rehabilitation camp are learning that caring for animals often entails more than cuddling with the critters.
On Thursday, the group watched as a Brooksville veterinarian pulled a cat from a bag.
This cat wasn't for cuddling, though.
Donning gloves and masks, they watched as Dr. Karen Taylor-Sorensen performed a necropsy on the animal, a male stray that had died and been donated by animal services.
As Taylor-Sorensen began her work with the scalpel and scissors, a couple of the dozen students walked away. The rest watched as Taylor-Sorensen, in the deadpan voice of a medical professor, explained how to spot damaged organs and other signs of trauma and disease.
All the campers appeared engrossed. More than a few were clearly grossed out.
Taylor-Sorensen held up a tiny heart.
"I'm going to pass this around," she said, prompting a collective gasp from the campers.
"You guys pick up steak and chicken parts before you put them in the oven, don't you," Christian asked.
"Yeah, but I didn't see it coming out," replied Amber Hoaglan, a 14-year Spring Hill resident who will start at Springstead High in the fall.
The campers had to get a letter of recommendation from a teacher and write their letter explaining why they wanted to attend the camp. Christian, who sometimes performs necropsies herself because of the lack of available veterinarians in the area, said she wanted campers to get an unvarnished look at the veterinary and rehab work "to give them the whole spectrum - the cuddly side and the dirty side."
On Monday, the campers checked stool samples. On Thursday afternoon, they cleaned pens at her facility off Mondon Hill Road.
"They all start out saying they love animals, and then you can tell some would rather be in animal photography," she said.
Hoaglan said she wasn't ready to give up on thoughts of becoming a vet or a rehabber.
"I like helping animals," she said, "and I think every animal should have a chance."
After about 45 minutes, Taylor-Sorensen was ready to put the cat back together. She demonstrated the delicate suturing technique, then asked, "Anyone want to sew?"
"No," replied one camper.
"No," said another.
"I'm good," said a third.
But Bob Myre was ready. The 15-year-old Hernando High student had been leaning over the cat as Taylor-Sorensen worked.
Myre eagerly took up the hook and forceps and managed a few neat stitches that earned Taylor-Sorensen's praise.
"I'll put you on the payroll Monday," Christian quipped.
"Alright," he replied.