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Great Lakes Article:

GLA program simplifies ecology for kids


Sierra Moen's young face reflected both fear and amazement as she gazed eye to eye at a slowly coiling python.

Following a pause that seemed to last forever, the 7-year-old girl tugged at her mother's leg. Crouching to her daughter's height, Sharon Moen listened as Sierra sheepishly whispered her innermost thought.

"She thinks it's disgusting,'' Sharon revealed, surprised and amused by her daughter's reaction.

After all, this snake isn't just any reptile. The 20-month-old African rock python was Sunday's star attraction at the Great Lakes Aquarium. The GLA hosted a kid-focused program Sunday called Odyssey in Learning. The monthly program, for youngsters ages 3 and older, simplifies information into terms children can understand.

"In Africa, snakes symbolize fertility and good luck,'' aquarium volunteer Richard Block explained to inquisitive children at the "Lake Victoria for Kids'' presentation. "Africans are very respectful of snakes, kind of like we are with eagles.''

The complicated ecological differences between Lake Victoria and Lake Superior are the stuff that scientific conferences are made of. And that's what the youngsters learned Sunday.

Like a children's petting zoo, the Odyssey program brings children into direct contact with exotic wildlife, enhancing their educational experience, GLA educator Andrew Webster said Sunday afternoon.

"They can really relate when they get up close to an actual living thing,'' he said.

At the Lake Victoria exhibit, snakes are most popular with preschoolers; older kids favor crocodiles.

"I was afraid there wouldn't be anything for little kids to do, but this is real informative,'' said former Duluthian Pat Leonard as his 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, examined an African pygmy hedgehog.

Tastes varied by children. Five-year-old Adam Burklund professed a liking for crocodiles, but cringed when his father, Jack, draped a wolf pelt across his shoulders.

"I don't like it,'' the boy said.

In addition to wildlife presentations, Odyssey features art programs, which allow children to exchange animal pictures with peers from other nations, and puppet shows, in which kids can talk to the animals.

"I can get as big as a bus -- 32 feet long,'' they were told at a show featuring Polly Python, the alter ego of GLA's real thing.

"I eat things as big as chickens,'' a puppet African bullfrog bragged as children giggled.

Sunday's visitors included many people who hold family memberships.

"I love this place,'' charter member Sue Kamper said as she helped her son, Dave, complete a drawing. "It's fun to come here and stay an hour or two, especially when there are new exhibits.''

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