Stephanie Nelson with boa constrictor at birthday party

Parks & Libraries Offer Free Wildlife Programs

An excited group of wiggly children of all ages, teens and adults, recently gathered on a Saturday morning under an outdoor pavilion at Dutton Island Preserve to see “Dinosaurs Among Us”. The “dinosaurs” were actually their modern-day descendants: all kinds of reptiles, the stars of a free educational program called Wild Wonders Animal Show. The interactive, family program will be presented at Dutton Island Preserve four more times in May and June.  It will also be presented free at several public libraries during June and July.

Mike Rossi and his assistant, Stephanie Nelson are teachers who want to introduce children to nature through safe, supervised interaction with live animals. Rossi said that one reason he does the programs is because he knows that some children may otherwise never have the chance to see or learn about these animals. The educational program with a purpose, blends stories and music with fascinating facts and information about local species of native and invasive reptiles of Florida, plus exotic reptiles kept as pets. 

Rossi and Nelson were surrounded by multiple sturdy and carefully covered pet crates, and mysterious, tightly closed plastic containers ranging in size from tiny to large. Great care was taken to prevent any accidental release of reptiles into the park: an important message of the program.

During the show, specially selected songs or movie themes introduced each animal to the audience of approximately 130. The music offered clever, entertaining clues about each animal’s personality or disposition that had the audience laughing in anticipation before the reptile was even seen.

The program included a wide variety of turtles, snakes, lizards and a baby American alligator. As Rossi or Nelson carefully held the reptiles, there were opportunities to approach any that could be touched or to have a closer look and take a photograph. Then, each reptile’s story was told, including detailed facts about that animal, with time left for audience questions.

“We offer four different animal programs that include educational, but fun lessons, lots of information about the animals and interactive activities. Besides reptiles, other topics cover how animals use their important senses of smell, sight, hearing and touch to survive in nature,” Rossi said. “We also discuss invasive species and how they affect Florida’s wildlife and environment. It is important to teach why we should never release any pet into the wild, which happens far too often. Pets released into the wild may suffer and die, unable to survive on their own, or they can breed and cause serious problems for native wildlife and the environment.”

A fun ingredient of the Wild Wonders Animal Shows is plenty of humor. Most of the animals have names: Bernie the bearded dragon lizard, Shrek the blue-tongued skink, Rocky the savannah monitor, Princess the green iguana, Banana Boo the ball python, Boadereck the red-tailed boa constrictor, Booger the alligator snapping turtle, Booger, Jr., the common snapping turtle, Skooter the peninsular cooter turtle, Darth Gator the American alligator. The unnamed participants include a leopard gecko, Brazilian rainbow boa, box turtle and a Mexican milk snake. A fourth program called “Warm Fuzzies”, features typical pet store animals familiar to most children.

Rossi with Shrek, blue-tongued skink
Rossi with Shrek, blue-tongued skink

Mike Rossi has been interested in animals and wildlife, especially reptiles, since childhood. Because his mother was allergic to fur, he could never have a furry pet, but he could have reptiles. His favorites were turtles and when he became a teacher, every class he taught had a resident pet turtle. He also formed a student zoological society at his schools. Rossi’s goal has always been to teach about native and exotic animal habits, behavior, care and related environmental issues.

In 2002, Rossi started helping a friend present educational animal shows. Eventually he took over the programs when illness forced his friend’s retirement. 2022 is Rossi’s tenth year of introducing Northeast Florida children to the wonders of animals and nature through his fee-based educational programs. He presents the shows during weekends, school breaks and summers at schools, daycares, camps, YMCAs, churches, libraries, parks and birthday parties.

Rossi has been an elementary teacher since 1985. He taught science for twenty-seven years and more recently has taught language arts and math. His Wild Wonders program assistant, Stephanie Nelson, is a middle school reading teacher.

Rossi regularly rotates his animals so that they do not appear in successive programs, to avoid any stress. He is fully insured, and licensed by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep, care for and transport the animals. His animals and the facilities where they are housed are regularly inspected by the USDA. 

No native animals are ever taken from the wild, which is illegal. Proceeds from the Wild Wonders programs go to care for the animals and gas for transportation to events. A portion of proceeds is donated in support of local Fraternal Order of Police, and the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters fundraisers for youth summer camps and projects.

There will be four more free Wild Wonders Animal Shows offered at Dutton Island Preserve on Saturdays at 11 a.m.: May 14 & 28; June 11 & 25.

The preserve, part of Jacksonville and Atlantic Beach, is located west of Mayport Road. It encompasses thirty-eight acres and a forested island in San Pablo River Estuary South of the St. Johns River. There are nature trails, fishing/observation pier, canoe/kayak launch, picnic areas, pavilions, camping and a free wheelchair can be reserved.

Five Jacksonville libraries will present the Wild Wonders Animal Programs free in June and July, all at 11:00 a.m.: Wednesday, June 8, Main Library; Tuesday, June 28, Highlands Regional Library; Wednesday, June 29, Pablo Creek Library; Thursday, July 14, Southeast Library; Friday, July 15, Charles Webb Library.

There are other upcoming, free opportunities for families to see and learn about wildlife and birds at both of Jacksonville’s oceanfront parks: Huguenot Memorial Park and Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.  Huguenot Memorial Park Naturalist Jolie Friedrich said that a variety of birds, dolphins, seabirds, shorebirds, wading birds and crabs are usually seen on the naturalist-guided Beach Walks offered at the park. The walks are led along portions of the Great Florida Birding Trail at Huguenot from 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. on specific summer Saturdays: May 7, June 4, July 9 and August 6.

Jacksonville Parks Naturalist Jolie Friedrich & intern Camryn Middlebrooks with non-venomous corn or red rat snake at 7 Creeks Festival.
Jacksonville Parks Naturalist Jolie Friedrich & intern Camryn Middlebrooks with non-venomous corn or red rat snake at 7 Creeks Festival.

Another naturalist-led Beach Walk is offered on Saturday, July 16, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m., at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. A portion of The Great Florida Birding Trail also lies within Hanna Park and offers spectacular bird-watching. The Great Florida Birding Trail is a 2,000-mile collection of more than 500 Florida wilderness locations. The trail protects important habitats to safeguard birds, to promote birdwatching of native and migratory birds, and to encourage environmental education and ecotourism.

Hanna Park is the location of another free opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, to see or hear birds, owls, bats, frogs and occasionally wildlife, plus nighttime space and star-gazing. The Northeast Florida Astronomical Society (NEFAS), is a group of amateur astronomers of all ages whose serious hobby is observing and learning about objects in space. The non-profit group holds monthly public observation events at the park.

“We welcome the public to join us at Hanna Park on specific Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. Bring binoculars or a telescope, or view the sky through our members’ telescopes. We also have member “Telescope Doctors”, who are happy to help anyone having a problem with their telescope,” Mike Napper said. “We have about eighty members and welcome new ones. Our website – –  offers resources, news, astronomy for kids, a constellation guide and our calendar with free, monthly public observation events.” Napper, NEFAS President, is a retired engineer who worked on the NASA Space Shuttle Program.

John Viescas, NEFAS Director at Large, said that at the group’s remote, dark sky viewing location in the Osceola National Forest, they see bear, deer, alligators and hear coyotes, owls and whippoorwills, “plus we hear some animals we can’t identify in the dark.” Napper and Viescas said the dark sky location sessions are specifically for members to work on their own projects, unlike the public park events. Interested individuals can attend by contacting the group for instructions. They also hold a monthly meeting at FSCJ Kent Campus with a speaker or multimedia presentation that is open to the public.

NEFAS is interested in expanding horizons through education and space observation to inform people, especially youth, about astronomy as an exciting hobby that combines space, science and technology. They offer free astronomy speaker presentations, or members with telescopes for an observation session,  to schools, scout troops, non-profits or educational organizations. There is a minimum donation for private or commercial group presentations. Email [email protected]

Park visitors are advised to dress appropriately for the weather and time of day, wear closed-toed shoes, bring a hat, camera, binoculars, sunscreen, insect repellent and water. There is a $5 fee per vehicle to enter the oceanfront parks. A military discount is available with a state-issued military identification. Inclement weather may force cancellation of outdoor programs.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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