Exotic education

Animal program manager Emma Hazel carries Calvin the alligator around the Lincoln Elementary gymnasium for students to see on Tuesday. Calvin is only 4 years old, but can live to be 80, Hazel said.

Members of Kids Klub got an up-close look Tuesday at some animals they’ve been learning about, thanks to the “Working with Wildlife” presentation.

This program is the product of a partnership between Kids Klub, Lincoln Children’s Zoo and Nebraska Game and Parks, thanks to a grant from the Nebraska Department of Education. It is a rare opportunity for kids who are interested in working with animals to interact with professionals in the industry.

Until Tuesday, children from Lincoln and Buffalo elementary schools had only seen some of these animals via Skype video calls with education coordinator Alyssa Hodes.

“I would bring animals into my office to show them,” Hodes said. “It’s probably the highlight of my Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”

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Hodes was repsonsible for putting the presentation together.

Also on hand Tuesday was animal program manager Emma Hazel, who brought with her some of the zoo’s residents for the kids to meet and ask questions about.

The first guest was Stella, a striped skunk who delighted the children by scurrying around the gym. It is Stella’s black and white stripes, Hazel told them, that help protect her from predators. When another animal sees her fur, it will associate those colors with the smell of a skunk’s spray and know to stay away.

Another visitor was a ball python named Yoda. Yoda spent his time in the spotlight curled around Hazel’s forearm, demonstrating why these snakes are also sometimes referred to as “royals.”

“African royalty used to wear these snakes as jewelry,” Hazel said, draping the reptiles around their necks or wrists.

A young alligator named Calvin taught the kids about “leftovers.”

“They can actually save their food by swimming it deep down into the water,” Hazel said, “It’s dark and cold down there, and the food stays fresh in case they don’t catch anything new.”

If the students were very quiet, Scout the eastern screech owl let them hear the noise that earned the species its name.

The crowd favorite was Johnny, a long-legged cat that some children thought was a baby cheetah.

“He’s actually an African serval cat,” Hazel informed them.

Servals are the best hunters of all the wild cats, Hazel said. Their success rate is even higher than a lion or tiger. And Johnny was happy to demonstrate the method they use for hunting — by leaping straight up nearly 10 feet to grab a cluster of feathers, just like he would when catching birds in the wild.

Servals can jump between 9-12 feet into the air because of their long and powerful back legs. Their front paws can also curl so tightly that they touch the animal’s leg, making them experts at grabbing prey.

Tuesday won’t be the only chance students have to see these creatures. As part of the “Working with Wildlife” program, they will also take a trip to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in October.

“They’ll get a really behind-the-scenes look while they are there,” Hodes said, “They’ll get to feed some animals. We’ll probably take them to the animal hospital too, for those who are interested in veterinary science.”

It means the kids will get to interact with some of the larger animals that can’t travel to the school. They will also communicate with zookeepers and speak to a member of the staff that has spent time in Africa about the experience.

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