Mass. library program features bengals, savannahs

By Valerie Franchi CORRESPONDENT
Sunday, July 15, 2007

WESTBORO— Do you know what an oncilla is? How about a mangay, or a jaguarundi? A roomful of children and parents at the Westboro Public Library learned a fun way at an exotic animal show held there Thursday night.

Debi Willoughby of Jungle Encounters in Uxbridge is determined to use her shows to teach wildlife conservation and awareness of the world’s 26 species of small wild cats — including the oncilla, mangay and jaguarundi — many of which are threatened by the destruction of their homes and human pollution.

For more than a decade, Mrs. Willoughby has been lecturing and training exotic animals. In April 2001 she and her husband, Ed, both originally from Southboro, created Jungle Encounters, performing animal shows at birthday parties, town fairs, schools, libraries and other venues throughout New England.

Last year, Mrs. Willoughby added a new type of show, focusing on small wild cats.

“The mission of the Jungle Fund is to spread the word about the small wild cats of the world, and the goal is to collect donations to help support projects that will directly help them.”

In Westboro, there was a collective “awwww” from the more than 40 children attending as Mrs. Willoughby pulled 10-month-old Safari from his cage. Safari is a spotted Bengal cat, a hybrid of Asian Leopard and domestic cats.

The children were encouraged to ask questions, but couldn’t touch Safari.

“Even though he’s grown up in captivity, he’s still wild,” Mrs. Willoughby explained. “He’s not a very friendly cat and doesn’t like anyone except me.”

The kids’ excitement returned when Mrs. Willoughby presented Bruno, a year-and-a-half-old alligator. Since its mouth was taped shut, the children were allowed to touch it.

“It’s back was scaly, but its tail was squishy,” said Heidi, 9. “It was cool.”

The chinchilla, Padagonian cavy and Savannah cat were also off limits to the kids’ embraces, but they didn’t seem to mind.

“Dusty’s fur will start to fall out if she is handled too much,” Mrs. Willoughby told the audience about the 4-month-old chinchilla.

Mara, the 25-pound Patagonian cavy, one of the largest rodents in the world, second only to the capybara, would try to run away if approached. And at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour and jumping six feet high, it would be hard to catch him.

Hunter, a spotted Savannah cat — a hybrid of African Serval and house cats — was the last animal presented. At 20 pounds, he made a big impression on the kids.

Some of the questions asked by the curious participants included: What do they eat? How high does he jump? and How fast can he run?

Children also learned where the animals live in the wild, about their habitats, predators and what they prey on.

“My favorite was the chinchilla,” said Alejandra, 10. “I learned that they can’t go in water or their fur will fall out. On ‘Dora the Explorer,’ they showed chinchillas swimming in the river, so I guess the show was wrong.”

To get the children more involved in the fundraising aspect of the show, Mrs. Willoughby let them choose the project that would receive the donation from the Westboro library.

Money raised through Jungle Fund shows benefits three conservation projects. The Choco Rainforest Protection Project is helping the ocelots, jaguarundis, oncillas and margays of Ecuador. Money helps pay the expenses to rescue, rehabilitate and release the cats back into the wild.

The Jungle Fund also supports Conservation International, which is currently conducting research projects on the island of Borneo to save the bay cat, flat-headed cat and the marbled cat. In Chile and Argentina, the group is also researching the guigna — pronounced “gween-ya” — the smallest wild cat in the Western Hemisphere.

By a landslide, the guigna project won the hearts of the Westboro children.

“It’s so cute,” said Michael, 7, when he saw the picture of the four-pound spotted wild cat.

Funds for the project will go toward tracking guignas, setting up camera traps and working with the local government and people to gather more information about them.

Donna Martel, adult services librarian at the Westboro Public Library, organized the show.

“We would have had the show even without the charity aspect. Donating to the Jungle Fund was not the main reason for having the program. Nature shows are a big draw for the kids during the summer.”

“It was a great turnout,” she said, adding that she hopes to have Jungle Encounters back with different animals in the future.

Among the other stars of the Jungle Encounters shows are hedgehogs, a lizard, a rabbit, a ferret, a ringtail cat and hissing cockroaches.

To set up a show in your town or to find out more about the Jungle Fund, go to Jungle Encounters Web site at www.jungleencounters.org.

http://www.telegram.com/article/20070715/NEWS/707150755/1008/NEWS02

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