Some 20 youngsters sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, waiting to see what surprise wildlife rehabilitation specialist Linda Christian would unveil in the pet carrier she had brought with her.
The educational program Tuesday at Lykes Memorial Library was the first of four in a wild animal series sponsored by Friends of the Library.
Christian, owner/operator of 100 Acre Wood Wildlife Rehabilitation, off Mondon Hill Road east of Brooksville, asked the children what they thought the crate contained.
"An anteater," a little girl in the front row answered.
"A dog," proposed another preschooler.
Christian peeked under the carrier's cover, as if to confirm for herself.
"I think she's talking to a dog," one onlooker whispered.
The wildlife specialist kept the secret under wraps as she first introduced a tortoise to about 30 children, accompanied by their mothers and other adults.
While kids told Christian they had a cat or a dog — or even three dogs — at home, she emphasized that while pets must be in homes, wild animals must remain in their native territories.
Squatting, she placed a tortoise the size of a lunch plate on the carpet. The tortoise freely stepped out.
"What's wrong with her?" Christian asked.
"Its back legs aren't moving," observed Evan Poole, 10, of Brooksville.
Correct, Christian said.
The land-loving tortoise had been struck by a car, its midsection now bandaged in adhesive tape to stabilize a broken back, she explained. But the critter's front legs are more important, she continued, because they dig a home in the soil.
She circulated a domed, platter-sized empty tortoise shell. Three-year-old Billy Ward scrunched flat to peer inside.
As the live specimen traversed the room, Billy followed.
"You can touch him," Christian said.
Many fingers reached out as Christian said the tortoise's age can be counted by the number of "scoots" on its back, singular lines across each triangular delineation on the upper shell.
"Fifteen," several said.
"I think they missed a row that was under the bandage," said Evan.
Then Christian announced: "You kids are lucky. It's baby season."
Opening the animal crate to reveal the surprise, she bore a wiggling, spotted month-old fawn.
"She's hungry," Christian said as the tiny fawn licked her handler's face and gave her a kiss.
"She thinks I'm her mama," Christian explained.
The fawn had been delivered to her sanctuary about a week ago, she said, after its mother had been struck and killed by a car. When found, the fawn had not left its dam's side.
"She drinks eight of these a day," Christian said, picking up an 8-ounce baby bottle of formula.
Placing the fawn on the floor, Christian motioned for Jewlie Wolpert, 11, of Brooksville to step up as the feeder.
Bracing its forelegs wide, the fawn took the nipple.
"She was, like, pulling it down," Jewlie said.
Freed to explore on its own, the fawn zeroed in on the earlobe of 5-year-old Liliana Respalie of Brooksville.
"She bited me," the youngster smiled shyly.
"She thinks it's a bottle," Christian said. "She really likes you."
When the fawn loses her spots at about 4 months of age, Christian will return her to the wild, placed first in the crate, near where she was found along the Rainbow River. The deer will be freed intermittently until she adapts to her natural environment and learns not to favor humans.
All in keeping with the motto at Christian's rehabilitation facility: "Dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation, release of Florida native wildlife."
Friends of the Library has financed summer programming at Hernando County libraries for several years, said system director Adam Brooks. All of the programs are open to the public and are free.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]