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Students enjoy a talk on the wild side

Jaws the opossum and Smiley the alligator were just two of the creatures that paid a visit last week to youngsters in the PLACE programs at Lake Myrtle and Sanders Memorial Elementary School.

Also appearing: a rather testy snapping turtle and a one-eyed owl, who to the delight of many took off on a brief flight through the Lake Myrtle cafeteria only to use someone's blue lunch box as a landing perch.

The visit was part of an educational outreach program, World Wide Wonders, offered by the Great Explorations Hands On Museum in St. Petersburg. The program blends the art of Native American storytelling with educational and moral lessons.

About 100 youngsters sat mesmerized while curator Damon Chepren, also known as Silver Hawk, told the tale of the race between a couple of unlikely competitors: a turtle and a beaver. After telling how the crafty turtle managed to win the race by hitching a ride on the beaver's tale, Silver Hawk produced a live turtle that was more than willing to demonstrate its snapping skills. For safety reasons, the youngsters could look but were not allowed to touch the turtle, which Silver Hawk called "nature's hole puncher."

Smiley the alligator was a bit more compliant and seemed to have no problem offering up his tail for a little human contact after Silver Hawk told another story about a young Indian boy who listens to the good advice of an alligator. The Indian learns from the wise alligator how to hunt in a way that shows respect for the animal kingdom and ends up becoming a long-followed tradition of the tribe for generations to come.

While storytelling tickles the imagination, bringing the animals out and offering the children a hands-on experience is a great way to teach them about different animals, said Silver Hawk.

Learning the difference between species such as alligators and crocodiles _ the nose of an alligator is nice and round while a crocodile's snout is long an pointed _ was just one of the lessons that hit home with Sanders Elementary pupils Kristen Lindemann and Samantha Gomes. With a little prodding on the part of Silver Hawk, the two also got a closer look at the pink wormlike tongue of the snapping turtle.

They also learned how the owl takes flight without making any noise. While Indians often considered it an act of magic, said Silver Hawk, it is the soft, silky feathers that allow the owl to fly silently.

Teaching children how to treat animals is another aspect of the outreach program. Feeding alligators might seem like fun at first, but eventually the reptiles lose their fear of people and become dangerous, warned Silver Hawk.

Sean Long, a third-grader from Lake Myrtle, said he enjoyed the program, especially when he got a chance to touch the animals. But hearing how the owl lost his eye _ when a young boy shot at it with a BB gun _ made him feel bad. "You shouldn't do things like that," said Sean.

Classmate Jenna Leito said, "I thought it was good. I learned a lot about the animals. Like the colors of them. The owl has some white and some brown, and his feathers were really soft."

Kyle Smith, who is looking forward to entering the sixth grade at Pine View Middle School, said he also got a kick out of getting his hands on the various creatures. "But what I liked the best," said Kyle, "was how he told a story about every animal. That was cool."

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