WEEKI WACHEE — The Winding Waters K-8 first-graders screeched with delight — and probably a few other emotions — as Lowry Park Zoo animal ambassador Kenneth Coogan walked up to them with a Madagascar ground boa.
The children were also excited about seeing the giant African millipede, the prehensile-tailed skink, the prehensile- tailed porcupine, the hyacinth macaw and the tamandua (lesser anteater), all presented to them by Coogan and animal care manager Melinda Mendolusky — right there in the school gymnasium.
The Lowry Park representatives do programs at the zoo in Tampa, up to eight presentations a day, Coogan said, and also travel to schools, "for children who can't get to the zoo," Mendolusky said.
The program at Winding Waters began with an introduction to the different rain forest levels: the ground, the understory, the canopy and the emergent. Mendolusky stressed the importance of these habitats.
"It's very important that we save the Earth's rain forest," she said.
When Coogan walked in front of the children with the giant millipede, Mendolusky explained how important the creatures are for keeping the forest floor clean.
"They'll even eat dead animals," she said. "They help to make better soil."
Coogan fed the tamandua some honey to illustrate the animal's long tongue, which is used to pull ants and termites out of their nests. Mendolusky said the lesser anteater can eat about 9,000 ants a day.
She held the porcupine on a heavily gloved hand and arm. The gentle creature doesn't shoot out its quills, she explained, but predators can expect a mouth full of them should they attack. The prehensile-tailed porcupine eats fruits, flowers and leaves.
The big, spectacularly colored purplish-blue parrot put on a show, thrilling the children as it flew from one handler to another.
Lauren Revels, 6, liked the bird "because he had really beautiful wings," she said.
Seven-year-old Lance Caldwell said the macaw was his favorite "because it can fly back and forth."
The children apparently learned some new things about rain forest creatures. Said Lauren: "You have to be really careful with animals."
Lance said he learned "that the rain forest was very important to the animals."
Jaida Wright, 7, who was also impressed with the macaw, said she learned that the bird "can eat seeds."
Spencer Shinaberry, 6, liked the macaw and the porcupine.
"The macaw has a strong beak," he said. "I like the porcupine. It had quills on it."