by Whit Gibbons

September 20, 2015

An effective way to get people interested in and concerned about components of the environment is to use live specimens when giving talks to the general public, especially schoolchildren. Environmental outreach should be exciting and educational for the audience, but presenters can occasionally encounter a few surprises of their own. After all, if you bring a live rattlesnake or 5-foot alligator into a grammar school classroom, what could possibly go wrong?

But even more benign creatures can ensure that a talk is remembered by students and presenters alike. Getting the attention of schoolchildren is important for any subject, and two surefire ways to get and hold their attention during a presentation about the environment are to eat a frog and have a tortoise attack a third-grader.

Our colleague Yvonne's experience with a barking tree frog comes to mind. Yvonne is an expert at talking to young children, and a handheld frog always grabs their attention. We use an example of our biggest native tree frog to remind people that we have lots of exciting hidden biodiversity that we seldom see but still need to protect. The big green frogs come out at night in warm weather and rely on small wetlands for breeding. Their choruses sound like hoarse dogs barking in the dark.

During a talk, we let tree frogs do a little trick that everyone likes to see - walking straight up the wall using their padded toes. We stress the point that no one but us should touch the frog because they have skin secretions that can be irritating if you touch the frog then rub your eyes, nose or mouth. Yvonne had just provided this last bit of information to a classroom full of first-graders when the frog demonstrated another trick: its ability to jump. In this case, from the wall right into Yvonne's mouth! For those students, learning about barking tree frogs included the fascinating tidbit that they can make you froth at the mouth. (Fortunately for Yvonne, a restroom was directly across the hall, and she was soon able to continue the presentation.)

Turtles don't climb walls or jump into your mouth, but they make excellent subjects for a class talk. A tactic I like to use when showing children a gopher tortoise is to offer it a big strawberry. The red color immediately catches the tortoise's attention, and it will lumber over and eat out of your hand. As herbivores, they eat grass, berries and flowers in the wild. They are a keystone species where they occur, digging deep burrows in sandy soil that are used not only by the tortoises themselves but that become homes for other wildlife as well. Gopher tortoises are a federally threatened species in parts of Alabama and Mississippi, so they are the poster child for talking about charismatic reptiles that need our protection. Also, they virtually never try to bite a person, so during a school talk I like to let one wander around the room.

After feeding a tortoise and leaving it on the auditorium floor where a group of third-graders sat in a semicircle, I turned to get another animal out of a sack. Moments later I heard a commotion and looked up to see children standing, squealing and scattering about. Everyone was pointing in the same direction.

One wide-eyed little girl, still sitting, was scooting across the floor backward. The tortoise was advancing toward her with open mouth. Fortunately, tortoises even in high gear are slower than backward-scooting 8-year-olds, so I was able to rescue her from the attack tortoise as it became apparent what the problem was. The little girl was wearing bright red shoes, which the tortoise had apparently mistaken for the most luscious strawberries ever imagined.

Educating people about the environment has its surprises - and not all of them are reserved for the audience. I'll save the incidents with the rattlesnake and alligator for another column.

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