Animal educators bring ‘friends’ to local library

VINCENT – Thursday was a day of firsts at the Barlow branch of the Washington County Public Library.

Nine-year-old Kira Stolpa had never petted a ferret or a chicken. Alex Allphin, 6, hadn’t seen a snake in person before, let alone touched one.

“Oh, I loved it,” Allphin said after petting Nigel, a python brought to the library branch by representatives of the Good Zoo at Oglebay Resort & Conference Center in Wheeling, W.Va. “It felt like rubber.”

It was the first time in about 10 years the library branch had played host to zoo animals, said children’s librarian Kim Balachowski. Educators from the zoo, the only Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility in West Virginia, presented a pair of programs, one on how animals are trained and another on what types of food different animals eat.

Zoo educator Abbee Sempkowski not only told more than 30 students ranging in age from preschool to fifth grade how zoo employees train animals using devices called clickers, encouraging words and treats, she demonstrated – on the children.

She would have one child leave the room, then take suggestions from the others on what she should have them to do.

Sempkowski got 7-year-old John Wharton to hop on one foot around a folding chair.

“You try different things,” Wharton said. “When you hear the click, you keep doing (it) that way.”

Stolpa eventually figured out she was supposed to sit down in a certain place when it was her turn to be “trained.” But the highlight for her was getting to pet animals like a ferret named Sophie and a chicken.

“It’s pretty cool,” she said.

Another animal guest was Mr. T, a 65-year-old desert tortoise, who has been with the zoo almost since its start in 1977. One of the children asked Sempkowski if Mr. T could withdraw into his shell like his cartoon counterparts, and she said that wasn’t accurate because a tortoise’s backbone is connected to the shell.

Children also saw menus for animals like giraffes, wild boars and grasshoppers and had to guess whether they were for a carnivore, herbivore or omnivore.

Balachowski said the branch usually has a program and either a movie or craft for children each week, in addition to Storytime for the youngest children on Monday. The events keep children coming to the library and in a learning frame of mind while they’re off from school.

“As they grow older, they continue to feel comfortable going to the library,” Balachowski said.

The branch also offers programs for teens, as well as adults, including computer classes, tai chi and book discussions.