Introducing 6-foot-long “Snakeboy” to a group of young children normally causes mixed reactions of fear and excitement. Junior naturalists campers, however, couldn’t wait to slide their fingers across the corn snake’s bumpy scales.
Before lining up to pet Connie Deegan’s 12-year-old orange, black and white corn snake, hands from more than half of the 30 camp participants shot into the air. They had plenty of questions about Deegan’s snake collection.
“They have really specific questions about the poison,” she said. “They want to know how they eat and they want to understand how they get mice into their mouths. They want to know why the tongue has two tips that actually helps them tell what’s around them.”
The curious campers are attending a weeklong session of outdoor exploration headed by Johnson City Park Naturalist Brad Jones.
“It seems like everybody we have out here is interested in nature in one way or another,” he said. “We have numerous books we share with the kids and then we use flashcards to identify birds and salamanders and things like that. It’s one of the things most of the kids have in common.”
Rising sixth grader Ramsey Sentell is no stranger to junior naturalists camp or to snakes. She’s been a camp attendee for the past several years and has a pet black rat snake named “Slithery.” Her familiarity with the reptile made Sentell qualified to help Deegan hold Snakeboy while everyone felt his scales.
“I don’t know why, but there’s just something that tells me that I love nature and I just do,” she said. “I like to hike and I love snakes.”
Deegan’s snake presentation was Sentell’s favorite and it’s a subject the Seniors’ Center activities and services supervisor enjoys teaching and talking about.
A lot of people don’t know that I am even into snakes,” she said. “Ever since I was a little, little kid I’ve been very interested in snakes. Snakes are interesting because you like them or you don’t like them, but regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, you’re extremely interested in them. I feel like that if I can give an educational program for kids and answer some questions and perhaps decrease any fears they might have, it’s just a good idea.”
Deegan also gets a lot of questions from children who are worried about getting chased and even bit by snakes. Her philosophy is to teach them to identify the ones that are poisonous, so they will be less afraid of others like Snakeboy.
“Yes, they can bite, but they bite because they have a mouth,” she said with a laugh. “I mean anything can bite you, your little sister can bite you.”
The snake speech was also interesting to out-of-towner Lincoln Tracey of New Hampshire, who’s visiting family in Johnson City.
“I love snakes. I find them at home all the time,” said the 11-year-old. “But it was the first time I actually got to pet one. It was really cool.”
Sentell, Tracey and the other campers ages 7-14 will continue their outdoor activities through Friday at Winged Deer Park’s Robert Young Cabin.
“Camp gives the kids a chance to go out and have really positive interactions with each other and I think that’s one of the most important parts,” Jones said.
The junior naturalists will learn about plant, tree and bird identification, plus they’ll have more guest speakers like Marty Silver from Warriors Path State Park. Field trips to Buffalo Mountain Park, Rock Creek Park and Willow Springs are also on the agenda.