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Wondrous wetlands

Diane Zandman was holding what appeared to be a baby raccoon. She stroked it and talked about it until it began to apparently bite her. Fed up after three bites, Zandman slammed the raccoon on the table and flung it across the room, to the astonishment of the children watching her.

Zandman was presenting animals from the Animal Rescue Kingdom, a nonprofit sanctuary for hurt or disabled animals, for Citrus Springs Elementary School's annual Wetlands Festival on Friday. She really knew how to get children's attention.

The raccoon was only a toy, Zandman told them. She made her point, though, about staying away from animals in the wild.

As third-grader Taylor Michel, 9, watched her holding what appeared to be the young raccoon, he said, "Oh, I like it. I've seen 'em bigger, though, when I've been camping. They stole our drinks!" Then she threw it.

After that attention-getter, Zandman brought out her real creatures. She had a tarantula (which caused one teacher to turn in her tracks and head toward the door), a rabbit, a swamp bunny, as she called it (lots of awww's), a juvenile alligator and Sylvester, the cougar. The children were allowed to pet the declawed cat, which playfully swatted at some of them.

All day students moved from exhibit to exhibit watching presentations, playing games, creating crafts and petting feathery and furry visitors.

Visitors included turtles, an owl, fish and crabs, but the favorites seemed to be the cougars, ducks and alligators.

Ricky Santos, 11, said he liked the alligator "because it has a lot of muscle in the tail and a lot of force behind the jaw." The fifth-grader's perennial favorite at the festivals is the ducks, "because they have pretty colors."

Classmate Amber Makros, 11, liked the cougar, particularly because she got to pet it. "I've always wanted to pet one," she said.

Another festival veteran, Amber said her favorite stop was the Swamp Trapper, a.k.a. Rodney Miner. In and around his tent he had all kinds of interesting stuff, including a dried snapping turtle and alligator skins. "Every year the guy brings different furs," Amber said.

Fifth-grader Kati Woods, 10, was just leaving a manatee presentation by American Pro Diving. "I learned that manatees were once elephants," she said. "I thought that was pretty cool."

Back behind the school, St. Martin's Aquatic Marine Preserve had brought a touch tank. The large shallow basin contained fish and crawling crabs. Everything was safe to touch, although the idea of touching a crab sent a few young students screeching back a few steps.

Crafts and games included clay impressions of leaves and twigs, offered by Lecanto High School art students, fish prints with presenter Regina Newton in the art room, water cycle bracelets with Kathie Richie, and water conservation games with Lisa Merritt and her students from the Academy of Environmental Science.

One of the prettiest attractions was the chalk drawing the children themselves did on the sidewalk in front of the school. They drew fish, dolphins, grass, jellyfish and any watery creature they could think of. This was the one display the school will keep after everyone goes home ... that is, until it rains.