Creatures scaly and small

Parent involvement night at Robert Moton Elementary gives young children a show and tell about animals found at the zoo

March 25, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Parents and children settled on blankets and towels and waited for the show to begin.

It was an evening at the zoo. Only this time, the animals from Frederick County's Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo were coming to them. The adventure was all part of the Judy Center's parent involvement night at Robert Moton Elementary School.

"We try to do at least one thing fun and different," said Tammie Polk, parent involvement night coordinator for the center, which holds monthly sessions with a focus on children up to age 5.

Besides enjoying the sensation of super-soft fur, the roughness of reptile ridges and the powerful pipes of a parrot, the young viewers were treated to a nature lesson.

As they met a chinchilla named Mikey, a bearded dragon lizard called Spike and a yellow Burmese python known as Miss Priss - a favorite among the boys especially - the children learned the quirks and traits of each creature.

They discovered that the dust-bathing chinchilla's soft fur consists of hairs 500 times finer than that of a human; that the bearded dragon lizard has extra skin under its throat, which can turn black to ward off predators; and that Miss Priss could grow to 22 feet long and eat pigs or small deer.

On Wednesday, children fidgeted as the occasional squawks sounded from under a lone table set up in the cafeteria, where plastic containers and crates remained unopened - but promising.

The audience's repeated gasps and shrieks of delight - punctuated with the occasional "Ew!" - as Catoctin's Brandi Owens and Heather Hagelin introduced the animals suggested the group of more than 50 people was not disappointed.

After showing off Spike, Owens picked up two skulls.

Hope Wiedel, 6, stood to hold the smaller skull, while Owens explained the difference between the narrow, pointed head of a crocodile and the much wider one of an alligator, complete with holes for the animal's 82 thumb-sized teeth.

Then, approaching from behind, Hagelin brought up the next visitor: a grunt, or baby alligator, called Marsha.

"You want to hold [it]?" Owens said after warning Hope not to touch its head. The girl nodded and reached for the miniature reptile, which can weigh 500 to 1,000 pounds as an adult, the Catoctin education coordinator said.

Hope's calm as she helped hold the animal belied her inner concern: "I thought it was going to bite," she later said.

Owens then plopped Marsha onto the floor. Lifting its front foot, the reptile took halting steps forward on tiles slippery to its feet. Piercing and frequent shrieks repeatedly interrupted the presentation, leading the education coordinator to look back at the table cloaked with a green zoo banner and place a finger to her lips.

"Josie, shhh," she said. Silence followed her command, which made the audience laugh.

"She just can't wait. She's so excited to see you guys," Owens said at one point.

And when Josie finally made her appearance, the green and yellow Amazon parrot left her mark, lifting her wings and shouting "yay!" to mimic Owens as she raised her arms and uttered the same word.

The kids laughed again.

"I knew they would like the animals," said Donna Moran of Westminster, who said her family watches Animal Planet practically every night. She waited in line with her two sons, Cory and Connor, to pet the chinchilla and tan-colored roughness of the bearded dragon lizard.

Moran's reasoning seemed to have driven most parents to attend.

"Just even going to the pet store, they love," said Westminster resident Bonnie Williams, referring to 5-year-old Jamal and 4-year-old Nevaeh Williams. "So any chance to see animals, they're excited about."

Yet for Owens, the show is more than an animal field trip.

Introducing kids to the animals - and giving them a chance to touch them - makes the creatures, some of them endangered, more real than a book can, Owens said.

"We hope they take away a love for the animals, a better understanding of why we should protect them," she said.

But one boy had other ideas on what he should take away as he stood among other children stroking Miss Priss, who was draped around Owens.

He wanted the snake.

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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