It’s not often that you get to meet a snake named Kevin. Or a tarantula named Miss T. Or a salamander named Sally.
But along with Timmy C., Sweetie Corn, Miss Piggy, Olaf, Randy, Billy, Axel, Oscar, Frankie, Mary and, of course, the center’s beloved mascot, Peter Rabbit, these critters and many others form the hopping, crawling, slithering, swimming and jumping soul of Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.
Seeing, touching and even holding unusual animals, reptiles, insects and amphibians is an essential part of the Hickory Knolls experience. Whether housed in glass aquariums or swimming in custom-built ponds, the animals are there to introduce children and adults alike to the diversity of animal life that exists in our own backyards.
“These animals provide a chance for visitors to see critters from other environments,” said Pam Otto, manager of nature programs and interpretive services. “People can learn the connection between what we have here and what exists in our community’s natural areas.”
It’s also a great way for families to determine whether that guinea pig or turtle they’re thinking of adopting will be a good fit for their family. Interpretive signs tell important facts about every animal – did you know turtles can live for decades? – and staff can relay insider tips about an animal’s habits and temperament.
At any given time, the center’s non-human population can include corn snakes, bull snakes, a Western fox snake and an Eastern milk snake. There’s a black rat snake and an albino king snake. There’s a soft-shell turtle and a pond full of Blanding’s turtles, the endangered species that is part of a recovery project in cooperation with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. And, of course, there is the cute and cuddly Peter Rabbit and a guinea pig named Miss Piggy.
Not all the center’s animals have names, but by naming some of their more popular and accessible animals, the center is helping break down barriers that can exist when people are unfamiliar with or uncertain about a certain animal.
“There are people who have true phobias and a cute name isn’t going to help them overcome that, but if they find out that snake is named Timmy or Kevin, they may not be as afraid,” said Otto.
In fact, many nature centers and zoos discourage naming display animals because they want to emphasize the distinction between a domestic pet and an animal that lives in the wild.
It’s an important distinction. “If it’s a pet, it should stay a pet, and if it’s in the wild, it should stay in the wild,” said Otto. “I can’t stress that message enough.”
The center practices what it preaches. None of their animal residents was taken from the wild just to be put on display, said Otto: “These are all animals that, for one reason or another, were displaced or needed a place to stay. We’re kind of like an Airbnb for animals.”
Though Hickory Knolls is not a repository for abandoned or discovered animals, it does have an extensive list of individuals and rescue groups that will take animals in and re-home them.
“If you have a tough situation where you can’t keep a pet, such as a rabbit or snake or turtle, any longer, letting what you perceive as a wild animal back into the wild isn’t an option,” said Otto. Once an animal has been in captivity even for a short time, they acquire health insufficiencies and lose the survival skills necessary to live outdoors.
To learn more about the resident animals at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, visit www.stcnature.org.