By Harry Rowe | Staff Writer
Children interacted with a baby alligator early Monday morning during Cameron Park Zoo’s “Story Time – Shells and Scales.”
The zoo’s story time program is part of an effort to promote conservation among young children and teach them the value of wildlife at an early age. Children, accompanied by their parents, listened to stories, made arts and crafts, enjoyed snacks and got to interact with an animal relating to the theme of the day: reptiles. Children got to learn about the world of reptiles through a couple of books and a live interaction with a baby alligator.
“It’s wonderful to have exposure to the zoo and animals, and this is such a treasure to have in Waco a zoo like this,” said Sarah Heger, a part time education staff member at Cameron Park Zoo. “We’ve had Story Time at the zoo for years, and it’s just kind of been a program that has built over the years into kind of a hands-on opportunity for kids to come.”
Heger is one of the people responsible for organizing and planning events and the animals shown at the story times are always the highlight for the children. Cameron Park Zoo’s Ranch House supplies the pets used for educational purposes. They’re called “education animals.” They give kids a more hands on experience to remember what they learn, according to Heger. Heger also mentioned that most of the animals are given to the zoo because of owners who thought they could house exotic and illegal pets.
“Education animals are like zoo ambassadors, so they go out into Story Time, we take them in the zoo mobile to schools, to do programs, we go to nursing programs with them,” Heger said. “Those are animals that are smaller, able to be handled animals. That is really a learning opportunity for kids this age, to-be-able-to touch.”
There’s no shortage of diversity animals for kids to interact with. The children at the Monday story time laughed and smiled as they petted the baby alligator who was brought out by one of the staff members.
“A lot of the animals we have in the Ranch House are reptiles,” Heger said. We have different snakes: ball pythons, corn snakes, we have a boa constrictor. We have different turtles and tortoises, lizards. We [also] have a blue-tongued skink.”
Connie Kassner, curator of education at Cameron Park Zoo, said Cameron Park’s community outreach in the education department doesn’t stop at the pre-school ages. They also go to McLennan County elementary schools.
“We also offer a free program to schools in McLennan county called Outreach,” Kassner said. “We really try to incorporate conservation messages and also action steps — things kids can do in their own backyard that to help conserve. You know, re-use the plastic, maybe don’t use straws, turn off the lights, just simple things to introduce kids to conservation. What we’ve found is once they make a connection with an animal, then they’re more willing to take care of the environment because they want to keep things clean for that animal.”