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Varmints captivate Redondo Beach elementary school students

A ferret, a snake, a skunk, an owl, an oversized rabbit, an African serval cat. All of these critters and more took their turn on the stage, with their handler delivering a pithy lecture about each one. “This bird can hear my heart beating,” Mollie Hogan said of a barn owl named Dancer.

Varmints Captivate Redondo Beach Elementary School Students

This article was published on Sept. 20, 2012


Wild animals and elementary schools.

It might not sound like the wisest combination, but a bunch of critters paid a visit to Birney Elementary School in Redondo Beach on Thursday night, and it’s safe to say it was the most memorable lesson the kids had all week.

A ferret, a snake, a skunk, an owl, an oversized rabbit, an African serval cat. All of these animals and more took their turn on the stage, with their handler, Mollie Hogan, delivering a pithy lecture about each one, over the squirrelly exclamations of 100 or so excited kids.

“This bird can hear my heart beating,” she said of a barn owl named Dancer, explaining that owls have an extremely acute sense of hearing.

Hogan is the founder of the Nature of Wildworks, a Topanga-based nonprofit rescue shelter that provides lifetime care for nonreleasable wild animals. It also has an outreach mission to build public respect for nature and wildlife – hence the visits to elementary schools.

Holding a colorful bird the color of the sun, leaves and sky – its natural camouflage – Hogan introduced the class to a macaw parrot. Unlike the owl, the parrot likes noise generated by the enthusiastic crowd.

“She likes the fact that all of you are wearing very colorful clothes,” Hogan said. “She just thinks you guys are birds.”

Is it true parrots can talk? When Hogan’s dog, Patty, barks, the macaw says, “Patty stop it.” When the phone rings at home, the bird says, “Hello, how are you?” Once, as Hogan held the bird while saying goodbye to someone, the bird said, “Goodbye, and don’t come back.”

“It was pretty embarrassing,” Hogan said. “You have to be very careful what you say around a bird like this.”

She showed a couple ferrets – named Tinker and Bell – and then dug into a kennel to retrieve a prairie dog, the favorite food of the black-footed ferret. While holding the varmint upside down and scratching its neck – thereby putting it in a trance – Hogan explained that the black-footed ferret is the among the most endangered animals in the United States because the prairie dog had been hunted to near extinction by settlers in covered wagons.

“We don’t have prairie dogs in California, we have ground squirrels,” she explained.

The animal that actually brought the room to a hush was the skunk. That’s because Hogan warned it may spray if they were too loud. But this was in jest – the skunk had been descented.

Actually, skunks prefer not to spray if they don’t have to, because they have limited ammunition, and the smelly acid is their main line of defense. So a threatened skunk usually makes a big show of warning its potential targets. It stomps, it moon walks, it stomps some more. Then it turns around, lifts its tail and cranes its neck to face the victim.

“They are taking aim,” she said. “I’ve been sprayed by a skunk. It gets in your eyes, and causes temporary blindness, like pepper spray.”

Part of the aim of the organization is to educate the public on what makes for a good pet, and what does not.

Not so good? A ferret, which is illegal to keep, or the macaw, which tends to be picky about who it likes.

Much better is the rabbit.

“The one thing they do wrong is chew toys,” she said, as the students beheld a giant bunny named Honey. “But they are nice and quiet. … Look at how big her ears are.”

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