September 21, 2020

BY LAURIE SNELL kevin and crusher 2

Bingemans Conference Centre isn’t used to having such wild guests take over their banquet halls.

However, on March 1 and 2, the exhibit, Dinosaurs Past and Present brought the outdoors inside for some strange sights and sounds – bird calls from owls, hawks and falcons, hops of a red kangaroo named Jack, slithers and hisses of a reticulated python and huffs from a mellow alligator called Crusher.

However, these were nothing compared to the 38 ft. Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that commanded visitors’ attention upon entering the ballroom.

With strange sounds coming from every corner of the room, the common sound was the team of well-trained animal educators set on engaging and informing children about proper treatment of animals, using hands-on demonstrations and interactions with the dinosaur descendants to showcase proper care.

For educator Sean Hemmaway, there are a few messages he hopes children take away from the event. “Leave the animals in the wild in the wild – never take animals … and do your research before you actually get an animal.
Don’t just buy an animal from the pet store – you’ve got to do your research,” he said, adding that pet owners often don’t know enough about the breed or lifestyle of the pet they wish to have.

But the event and its employees find it difficult to evade controversy. Educator Kevin Dungey explained to the audience how they do what they can to enhance the lives of animals, and how misconstrued facts (such as the use of tape on an alligator) lead individuals to be upset with their process. Sitting on the stage, surrounded by children with Crusher the alligator’s head on his lap, Dungey told the story of how Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo rescued her.

“This animal here – I love Crusher. I’ve been with her ever since a couple years ago when they rescued her. When an animal gets hurt in the wild – harms its fur, breaks its wing or crashed into a window and falls down, needing to be rescued – do we rescue that animal? Well, no. We let nature take its course. If you remove an injured bird from the wild, well then there’s a fox that doesn’t get dinner. So nature is nature. We don’t mess with nature. We rescue these animals from people who think they are pets. This (alligator) was in somebody’s spare bedroom, and they gave us a phone call to say ‘hey my alligator is really sick and she’s not eating anymore, can you guys help me?’ … and we just rescued her – that’s what we do.”

He also explained the misconception that the alligator’s mouth is taped shut using duct tape, when in reality it is shut using electrical tape as a safety precaution. As part of his demonstration, he took the tape off Crusher’s mouth and stuck it on himself to show how harmless the tape is and that taping her does not change how she would normally position her mouth. Dungey makes a point of clarifying this controversy at each show, and explained later that he left a well-paying job to pursue his passion for enriching the lives of animals.

While the travelling exhibit is meant to teach kids many valuable lessons about the environment, animals and conservation, Hemmaway recalled coming to a similar event several years ago and feeling instantly inspired to work with animals in that capacity.

“I volunteered with the company around seven years ago. I came to a display very much like this and didn’t know anybody and asked if there was anything I could do to help – any grunt work. They got me cleaning up lemur poop and cutting vegetables for them and that was my very first job working for them … once they figured out I knew my stuff and I could talk to people, working hands-on with animals – I’ve been with them ever since,” Hemmaway said, adding that training is very thorough, but certain unexpected animals such as the kangaroo provide a different learning curve for the team.

“A lot of it is trial and error, learning with the animals or just book learning,” he said.

Another employee who is specially trained to work with Jack the kangaroo is Kevin Orr. He said, “He gets a bit ornery. He likes to play wrestle and fight and try to procreate with the other males and zookeepers … he will socially box and fight other kangaroos and he’ll socially box and fight us too.” Orr added that he is on loan from the Toronto Zoo for the duration of the tour and often tries to assert dominance. “We try to enhance the lives of the animals the best way we can,” he said.

Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, which is based in Ottawa, has partnered with the Canadian Raptor Conservancy to present Dinosaurs Past and Present as a travelling show throughout southwestern Ontario. Over 90 per cent of the exhibit’s animals have been given to Little Ray’s by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), municipal, provincial and federal governments and individuals seeking proper care for a creature.

The event was free for children younger than three, cost $10 per adult or $35 for a family of four. With the goal of teaching backyard and global conservation initiatives and responsible pet ownership, attendees young and old could mark petting an archosaur – the name of the reptile group that these crocs, birds and dinosaurs fall under – off of their bucket list. Most attendees left surprised and satisfied at touching the scales and slime of an alligator, kangaroo, python or a scorpion – an unusual opportunity for the region’s residents.

The demonstrations also included eight different species of birds of prey – including owls, eagles, hawks and falcons – and each took their turn flying around the room, causing discomfort and amusement for attendees. With staff members taking turns interacting with each animal and sharing information about them, the range of animals involved keeps the  reptile zoo staff’s knowledge base consistently growing.

For demonstrator Matthew Morgan, seeing the range of reactions to the animals provides a sense of nostalgia for his own childhood curiosity about wild life.

“For young kids, they usually try to reach out and touch (the birds) and for slightly older kids, they ask first. I mean, they never get to see these birds up close, they only ever get to see them when they’re flying around because when they’re sitting they don’t want to be seen.

“It’s fun when you finally get to see something up close – it’s interesting and amazing, even though I’m probably overselling it,” Morgan said.

“But I think kids like seeing these things up close so they can really see what’s going on in their backyards.”

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