Things go wild at expo

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kay McNeil, historian for the Historic Jefferson College, shows 9-year-old Kianyna Hillard a corn snake during the Wild Things Expo outside of Natchez High’s Steckler Multipurpose Building on Saturday. (Eric J. Shelton \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — If you wanted to learn something about nature Saturday, oddly enough, the best place to be was a parking lot.

Friends of St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge had its annual “Wild Things” festival, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the David Steckler Multi-Purpose Center.

Friends of St. Catherine Creek is a fringe organization that works with the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge to help promote understanding and conservation of Southwest Mississippi natural history.

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The event, designed to educate children on the environment and its conservation, was a success and had some of its best displays ever this year, St. Catherine Creek Refuge Manager Bob Strader said.

The mission of the “Wild Things” festival is simple.

“We want to teach basic environmental education,” President of Friends of St. Catherine Creek Refuge Pete Smith said.

“We want to teach a little about the outdoors, and hopefully get the kids away from the computer and the TV and realize there’s a whole world out there.”

This year’s event included displays of animal skins and skulls, a transmitter where kids could listen to bears that are currently being tracked, live animal specimens, an archery range, a forestry display and a display by the Adams County Master Gardeners.

Included in the live animal specimens on display were two of the most popular guests at the festival. Kids were allowed to see and touch Jim and Frank, two 14-year-old corn snakes, who were being handled by Kay McNeil, historian at Jefferson College.

“I want people to get over the fear of snakes, because there is nothing to fear” McNeil said.

“(These) are harmless snakes and I want to show that they are very beneficial and they have the right to live.”

McNeil herself used to be terrified of snakes, she said, but she got over that fear about two-years ago when she finally worked up the courage to handle one herself, and now she loves them.

Another popular activity for the kids was an obstacle course that displayed how Louisiana Black Bears live each year.

Kids dressed up as bears and went through the yearly cycle that taught them what bears eat, when they hibernate and how people and bears and coexist safely.

“(The bear course) was kind of fun,” 12-year-old Chance Cavin from Vidalia said.

“(We learned) that people have been getting mad about bears spilling their trash cans and that bears eat crawfish, I didn’t know that.”

Jennifer Hogue, a biologist with Louisiana Ecological Services was running the bear course and teaching kids about bears.

“Kids always have fun with more hands-on learning as opposed to just looking at things,” Hogue said.

“A lot of people are scared of bears, and we want them to understand them and what they live like.”

The biggest cause of mortality for bears is getting run over by cars, Hogue said. With that in mind one of the aspects of the obstacle course had kids cross the street as a bear.

“I got to get run over by a car,” 10-year-old Gregory Martin of Natchez said about doing the bear obstacle course. “The black bear and the car (were my favorite parts).”

There was also a forestry display, where children could learn different things about trees, including how to tell the age of a tree by its rings. The display was designed to illustrate the importance of trees to the ecosystem, John Simpson the director of forestry for Friends of St. Catherine said.

“All the critters are nice but you have to have the habitat to have (the animals). The trees provide food and shelter,” Simpson said.

Natalie Waltman of Ferriday brought her daugthers, Brooke, 4, and Madison, 6, to the festival.

“Everything was really cute and very educational,” Waltman said. “(I brought them) to give them something to do and maybe learn something.”

Madison’s favorite activity was the bear course and Brooke was excited because she got to hold the snake, she said.

The festival also featured some fundraisers for the Refuge, as well.

There was a silent auction with over $7,000 worth of merchandise that guests could bid on, Smith said.

Also, guests could purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win a four-person, squirrel hunt in February with Redneck Adventures. The winners of the raffle will be announced in October.

The main fundraising goal of the Festival was to raise money for the environmental education center at the Refuge, Smith said.

“The long-term goal is to bring bus-loads of kids to the environmental education center, how we can only handle about 10-15,” Smith said.

Friends of St. Catherine volunteers were also selling cookbooks, t-shirts, food and drinks as well as accepting membership applications to the organization.