MARIETTA - Shudders, gasps, and even a few squeals of excitement swept through the packed gymnasium at Harmar Elementary School Wednesday night, as Keith Hornsby of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium waltzed into the room with Mango draped across his shoulders.
"How many people are afraid of snakes?" joked fellow zoo employee Tommy Dodge.
Measuring in at more than 12 feet, there was plenty of the albino Burmese python to go around. Some children scooted closer and some backed away as Dodge tried to dispel some slithery rumors, pointing out that snakes like Mango do not eat people and are not aggressive.
Photo by Jasmine Rogers
Keith Hornsby, of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Animal Programs Department, shows off Mango, the zoo’s 12-foot-long Burmese Python. Mango and other animals were featured at Harmar Elementary School Wednesday night as part of the school’s family reading night.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about snakes. For example, people think they are slimy," said Dodge.
Then he invited third grader Andrew Vincent to the front of the room to touch Mango and dispel that rumor.
"He feels smooth," said Vincent.
Still, Vincent's twin brother, Hunter, said he was glad he did not have to touch the snake.
Wednesday's family reading night program was a product of the school's Title 1 program, a federally funded program aimed at increasing educational opportunities, said Anne Burnworth, one of the school's Title 1 teachers. Harmar students in kindergarten through third grade were invited to attend and their parents were required to accompany them.
"We're hoping to promote reading with their child," said Burnworth.
The program began at 5 p.m., an hour before the animals arrived, and every child in attendance was given a book to read with their parents over a picnic style dinner. The book, "Raptor: A Kid's Guide to Birds of Prey", was a accompanied by a scavenger hunt which taught students how to more actively engage in reading, said Title 1 teacher Terrie Bain.
The books was a big hit among students.
"I learned that birds come from dinosaurs," said fifth grader Ashley Stewart, who was attending the event with little sister Kayla.
Kayla, who was hoping to see a turtle, said she liked flipping through the different pictures of birds in her book.
Mango was not accompanied by any turtles, but he did have a wide array of companions. Children got to see a caracal, an African penguin, an eastern grey kangaroo, a palm civet, a pair of baby clouded leopards, a European barn owl and a Eurasian lynx.
The Zoo to You program is part of the zoo's Animal Programs Department. The goal of the department is to raise awareness and educate people on the need for conservation, said Hornsby.
"We're trying to encourage people to read about these animals and study them and want to preserve them," said Hornsby.
Except the kangaroo, all of the animals present are considered endangered, he added.
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to some animals, explained Dodge. For example, the civet's fluffy appearance made it appear like a cross between small cat and large bear. Despite its innocent look though, the civet is a deadly enemy of King Cobra snakes, said Dodge.
While Dodge explained what made each animal so unique, Hornsby carefully carried all of the animals around the room, allowing the more than 200 attendees to get a close look at them.
Some got a little more than they bargained for. Admirers of Chubby the penguin jumped back in surprise as when the penguin had a bathroom accident. But the crowd laughed it off and Dodge quickly turned the incident into a lesson about the animal's diet.
First grader Jordan Grose had been looking forward to the zoo program for some time.
"I want to see all the kinds of animals," said Grose, who was particularly fond of Mango.
Grose's mother, Lisa, also enjoyed the family outing.
"It was something nice to do with him," she said.