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Children get hands-on experience with Ohio reptiles

Jenny Richards, right, Head Naturalist at the Shawnee State Park Nature Center, allows this young man to get up close and personal with this reptile during the Return of the Snakes program on June 25.
Jenny Richards, right, Head Naturalist at the Shawnee State Park Nature Center, allows this young man to get up close and personal with this reptile during the Return of the Snakes program on June 25.

Return of the Snakes 2016 comes to Serpent Mound –

Story and photo by Patricia Beech –

Children were given the opportunity to get up close and personal with reptiles during the third annual Return of the Snakes program hosted by the Arc of Appalachia at Serpent Mound Park on Saturday, June 25.

Researchers and field naturalists from Shawnee State Park, Hueston Woods State Park, and the Arc of Appalachia held educational presentations throughout the day, and visitors had the opportunity to view numerous live reptiles and interact with docile native snakes handled by expert educators.

The days featured presentations included: “Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads – A Precarious Future” by Jenny Richards; “Turtles of Ohio with Shawn Conner; Venomous Snakes of Ohio – Identification and Natural History” with Jenny Richards; and a “Fibbing Contest and Snakes Tails – Tall Tales Myths and Legends for Kids” with Jenny Richards.

The family-friendly event featured a Field Outing for aspiring young naturalists nine years old and up who are attracted to wildlife conservation. The children were taught how to spot reptiles, learned where reptiles live, when they are active, and what they eat.

A variety of reptiles native to Ohio were on display including a copperhead, rattlesnakes, an eastern king snake, garter snakes, lizards, toads, and a variety of turtles.

Visitors were given the opportunity to interact with docile snakes and turtles handled by expert educators.

“Our goal is to get people feeling more comfortable with reptiles,” said Jenny Richards, Head Naturalist at the Shawnee State Park Nature Center.

Curious faces press to the glass to watch this Eastern King snake make a meal out of a smaller garter snake at the June 25 Return of the Snake program at Serpent Mound.
Curious faces press to the glass to watch this Eastern King snake make a meal out of a smaller garter snake at the June 25 Return of the Snake program at Serpent Mound.

Richards spent her childhood exploring the outdoors near her family’s home on the edge of Shawnee Forest. Today, she is considered one of Ohio’s foremost nature interpreters.

“I’ve always loved wildlife and the outdoors,” she says. “And I’ve always been an advocate for conservation.”

Since 1999 she has traveled across Ohio with her collection of reptiles, speaking to as many as 14,000 children a year in her educational outreach programs.

She is credited with inspiring more young people to pursue conservation and outdoor education vocations than any other naturalist in the state.

Richards was joined by Eric Davenport from Clermont County Water Resources. While teaching the children how to hold and interact with an Eastern king snake, he explained that a fungus was causing a rapid drop in snake populations across the United States. “Snakes are responsible for controlling the mouse population,” said Davenport. “Mice carry serious viruses such as the bubonic plague and the hantavirus which can be fatal for humans.”

Naturalist Shawn O’Connor from the Hueston Woods State Park in College Corner near Oxford gave a presentation on Ohio’s turtle species. While children encircled the turtle pool, O’Connor shared the natural history of Ohio’s turtles, both aquatic and ground. He explained why the eastern United States is an important center for turtle conservation and protection, especially for the common box turtle. “A loss of habitat has caused box turtle numbers to drop sharply,” O’Connor said. “The species is now on the endangered watch list.”

A Fibbing and Snake Tales contest including tall tales, myths and legends for kids was held in the afternoon. Those attending were invited to tell their tallest, wildest snake tale, amphibian fable, or lizard legend while Richards untangled the facts from the fiction.

Additional activities for the children included face painting and decorating toad shelters for vegetable gardens.

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