Gey Bateman and his family only recently heard of Touch an Animal Day, and checked it out for the first time on Saturday.
“We didn't know it was down here,” he said. “We were told about it by the summer camp that they went to. It's in our backyard – why not come and see it?”
The Batemans, and about 700 other people, found out just how much is in their backyards at the sixth annual Touch an Animal Day at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory Conference Center. The event offers guests the opportunity to interact with scientists and college students about their ecological research on the Savannah River Site, and to see animals that are native to the area.
More than a dozen living exhibits kept the facility packed for three hours on Saturday. The displays featured a variety of reptiles, from venomous and non-venomous snakes, to salamanders and alligators.
“Part of the issue with venomous snakes is, people spend a lot of time concerned about snakes,” said Kimberly Andrews, an education program specialist at the lab. “There's not a lot of good information about snakes, there's not a lot of good information on TV, which is why we do events like this. A lot of what we want to communicate with people here is what venomous snakes are in the area. We want to conserve snake populations, but first and foremost, we want people to be safe in their backyards.”
A sign on the table where people could touch a rattlesnake stated plainly that this is the only time a person should ever touch a rattlesnake.
For guests who were a little too rattled by the snakes, turtles of varying sizes were a little more approachable. Others wanted to look into the wide eyes of an owl. There was even a table filled with different edible leaves and berries, which guests were able to sample.
Several graduate students had poster boards on display that summarized research they have been working on. Amanda Holland's research focuses on how common it is for turkey vultures and black vultures to collide with planes, and how an acoustic hailing device can be used in airfields to disperse birds from the area.
“People think the vultures are gross because they eat dead things,” she said. “But they're surprised when they look closely at the feathers. It's really good for people to be able to look closely at these species that you don't get to see up close very often.”
Whit Gibbons, an ecologist and environmental educator at the lab, started the event six years ago.
“We wanted to give the community a chance to see what we do,” he said over the shrieks, squeals and cackles of children looking at the exhibits.
The event has gained new exhibits over the years, including the posters this year. Gibbons said the while the lab is at its capacity, the event typically brings in crowds of about 600 people.
“At the end, we have to turn people away,” he said with a laugh.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Jax Mead looks at a display of venomous snakes, which was one of more than a dozen living exhibits at Saturday's Touch an Animal Day at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.×
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Linda Lee, left, explains several different kinds of edible leaves and berries to a group of spectators at the sixth annual Touch an Animal Day held Saturday at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.×
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Andrew Millies, left, Nora Millies and Mary Claire Milles get up close and personal with wetlands creatures at the sixth annual Touch an Animal Day held Saturday at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.×