BENNINGTON — Students in Bennington Elementary's Seedlings after-school program got a special surprise on Monday afternoon, when their classroom was visited by several live animals.
Soon after the bell rang at 3 p.m., the six children in the program were impatiently waiting for "the animal man" to arrive. The animal man was Michael Clough, assistant director of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum. As soon as he walked in the door, the kids, who are in second grade, were asking excitedly if he had brought vultures, or baboons. "No," he said, laughing, "we're called the Southern Vermont Natural History museum, so we talk about things from Vermont!"
The first of these animals was Sophia, an American kestrel, who, he quickly noted, "didn't wash her face after her lunch. Which, when your lunch is a mouse, can lead to a pretty messy face."
One of the children excitedly asked if they could see her fly, to which he responded, "She flies very well, but she only flies away, she doesn't come back. So, it's a lot of fun, but we could only do it once."
Like all of the animals at the museum, which is on Hogback Mountain in Marlboro, Sophia was unable to return to the wild, in her case because she was taken from the wild by a human in northern Vermont in infancy, and would not, at this point, be able to adapt to life in the wild.
Clough then let the children handle Slick, the corn snake, who he pointed out wouldn't be able to hurt them even if he did bite them, which he did not. Snakes, he said, if they do bite, don't have the jaw power to rip off pieces or chew their food, which is why they swallow their prey whole. The biggest animal Slick would be able to eat, he said, was a chipmunk or small rat.
Giving the kids a break from the stimulation of live animals, Clough brought out some animal skulls, and had the children guess which animals they had originally belonged to. Although he assured them that all of the animals that the skulls belonged to could be found in Vermont today, that didn't stop the kids from guessing "dinosaur" every time. The skulls belonged to a black bear, a beaver, and a coyote.
As an apology to those who had been too afraid to hold the snake (mostly adults), Clough brought out Elmer the rabbit, who many of the kids were excited to hold right away.
"Do you want to hold him?" asked Clough, "You can, but we have to do some learning stuff first."
He taught the students about how difficult it is to sneak up on a rabbit, because of their hearing and wide field of vision. "Think how tough you need to be to be a rabbit," he said, "Everybody wants to eat you if you're a rabbit!"
"No!" said one of the students, "I'm a kid, and I don't eat rabbits!"
The next animal, said Clough, was one that rabbits don't like very much. While the students were considering which animals could eat rabbits, Clough produced Humphrey, the box turtle. After telling a version of the story of the tortoise and the hare, which was much more sympathetic to the rabbit antagonist, to explain why rabbits don't like turtles, he explained Humphrey's shell, and its use as a defense mechanism. "He is the state-of-the-art in turtle defensive technology, but he's not a very good swimmer," he said.
The final animal was Aragorn, the barred owl, one of the museum's most popular animals, who amazed children, tutors, and volunteers alike when he flew from Clough's gloved hand back to his box.
The Seedlings program was born last year out of a partnership between the school, the Tutorial Center, and Green Mountain Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. Six students were chosen to be a part of the homework and tutoring program, which they will remain in through sixth grade, as long as they stay within the district.