Animal Ambassadors: Visitors educate BV students on wildlife

Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Students at Berryville Intermediate School learned that this three-banded armadillo uses its long front claws while digging for insects. See more photos on Page 12.
Photo by Tavi Ellis/Carroll County News

Berryville Intermediate School had a wild Monday morning thanks to a visit from some animal ambassadors.

Barn Hill Preserve has locations in both Louisiana and Delaware and offers educational animal programs in both areas.

Wildlife programmers McKenzie Brandon and James Cassidy introduced the students to a variety of animal ambassadors, including a red-tailed boa constrictor, a keel-billed toucan, a Sulcata tortoise, a bearded dragon, a three-banded armadillo and a two-toed sloth.

Brandon explained that an “animal ambassador” is an animal the programmers bring to schools to teach students about animals that are in the wild and in captivity, such as zoos and preserves. Even though the animals are tame, she asked that the students stay quiet so that they wouldn’t scare the animals.

As one programmer gave information about each animal, the other would carry the animal through the rows of students in the cafetorium to give them a closer look. Students had the opportunity to ask questions about

the animals after each presentation.

The first animal ambassador was a red-tailed boa constrictor from South America named “Rosie.”

Brandon said that Rosie is an arboreal snake, meaning she spends most of her life in the trees.

“Rosie is a pretty big girl, and she’s a really good climber,” Brandon said. “She’s good at gripping onto things.”

A lot of people are afraid of snakes because they think of them as being poisonous, she said, but the right word would be “venomous.”

“Poison is something you swallow or touch that makes you sick,” Brandon said. “Venom is something that’s injected into you. If it bites you and you get sick, that’s venom. If you eat it or touch it and get sick, that’s poison.”

She continued, “Rosie is not venomous. She kills her prey in a different way. Does anyone know how?”

One student raised his hand and asked if Rosie squeezes her prey to death.

“Yes, that’s exactly what she does,” Brandon said. “She waits on the forest floor for weeks. She doesn’t have to eat very often. We actually feed her every 30 days.”

When an animal runs by, she said, red-tailed boa constrictors flick their tongues out in order to smell.

“Snakes don’t taste with their tongues. They actually don’t taste at all,” Brandon said. “They use it to smell. If it’s something she’s interested in, she’s going to grab it, wrap around and squeeze it really tightly until it suffocates.”

The snakes will then swallow their prey whole, she said, because they can open their jaws 180 degrees. Brandon had the students touch their jaws and open and close their mouths.

“If you feel that joint moving, it connects your jaw to your skull,” she said. “That’s something we have that a snake does not. Their jaw is just free-floating around in their skin. Snakes don’t have to chew their food. She swallows it and eats it whole.”

The next animal ambassador was a keel-billed toucan from South America named “Paco.”

“This species is what Froot Loops’ mascot ‘Toucan Sam’ is based off of,” Brandon said, “even though they don’t really look alike because Sam is blue and has pink on his bill.”

She said Paco is a frugivore, which means he mostly eats fruit.

“It makes sense that Froot Loops picked a toucan because their favorite food is fruit,” she said. “We like to feed Paco bananas, cantaloupes and apples.”

Like most birds, Brandon said, toucans are very social and live in big flocks together. However, she said, they don’t migrate like some birds.

“They’re going to stay in one area their whole lives,” she said. “Migrating is when a bird flies hundreds of miles for summer or winter. They usually do it for temperature to stay warm, get cooler or find food.”

Brandon continued, “It’s warm all year where toucans come from, and they have food and fruit all year. They don’t have a need to migrate.”

Another cool thing about toucans, she said, is that they play games together.

“Most animals in the wild just try to eat, sleep and not get eaten,” she said. “These guys play games. They find a round fruit and toss it back and forth between each other with their beaks like they’re playing ball.”

The final animal ambassador was a two-toed sloth from South America named “Grace.”

Cassidy said sloths live in the trees of the rain forest and eat leaves.

“All they have to eat is leaves. We call them folivores, which means they only eat foliage,” he said. “If we only ate a salad with lettuce, we wouldn’t have much energy for the day.”

The same is true for sloths, he said, which have really slow metabolisms.

“Metabolism is all the processes that go on inside your body to turn food into energy,” Cassidy said. “Sloths have really slow metabolisms so they conserve energy by being really really slow.”

He asked how many miles per hour a sloth moves. Students guessed 1 mile per hour and 0.05 miles per hour, but even these guesses were too high.

“Sloths only move 0.001 miles per hour,” Cassidy said. “Sloths move so little in the moist and wet rain forest that algae grows on their backs. It helps them a lot because it camouflages them up in the green trees.”

Because sloths are so slow, they have a few defense mechanisms to use against predators, he said. One is their claws, which are used to hang upside down most of the time. They also have sharp canine teeth to bite predators, he said.

“Because of their diet and slow-moving, they actually grow bacteria in their mouths,” Cassidy said. “Anything that gets a sloth bite will get an infection.”

He said sloths only come down from the trees once every seven to 10 days to go to the bathroom.

One student asked how large sloths get.

“Grace is still really small because she’s only 7 months old,” Cassidy answered. “We have some full-grown ones at the preserve, and, when their limbs are stretched out, they can be up to four feet long.”

Principal Lisa Geren congratulated the students on staying quiet for each of the animal ambassadors.

“Bobcats, you did an amazing job today,” she said. “I’m very proud of you.”

Students were then able to pay to get photos with some of the animals, such as the sloth and the bearded dragon.

For more information on the Barn Hill Preserve, visit or call 225-286-3003.

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