By KATE BETTON
The Somersworth International Children’s Festival is revving up its 27th year with a bang….
The other area of top popularity of the Festival, the exotic animals display, is headed up by Derek Small and Wildlife Encounters, which Small describes as “a federally licensed zoo whose model is doing outreach programs exclusively.”
Wildlife Encounters has been seen recently in the area at events such as the WERZ Kids’ Fest and the SPCA’s PetFest.
“Since 2003, we teach probably about 300 classroom programs a year in New Hampshire and Maine,” Small said, “And at least 200 summer camps during the summer months … so far we’ll be at thirty-three libraries in New Hampshire this summer.”
As for this year’s Festival, look for an African Safari theme.
Small describes a set-up of “all African animals, some hands-on animals and some exhibit-only animals. There’s hands-on and hands-off stuff, so there’s something for every age level.”
Animals attending on the “hands-off” list: African serval cat, fennec fox, and a Nile crocodile. Some animals that are finger-friendly: a giant sulcata tortoise named Frodo, “the walking rock,” African pygmy hedgehogs, African giant millipedes, and an Egyptian Uromastyx or other lizard.
“I have to always have a big snake,” Small said wryly.
“I think I’ll have to take our giant python Medusa. She’ll be in a secure display, she’s 16 feet long and weighs 100 pounds.”
Small confirmed that often, children gravitate to the snake while their parents are far less enthusiastic about nearing the creature.
It will be Frodo’s fifth year at the Festival, so Small expects like past years, people will be looking for her.
But, he says, “I think Isis (the serval) will get a lot of eyeballs. Kids love the hedgehogs and the millipedes, but kids have seen them. I think Frodo, Medusa and Isis will be in competition to see who gets the most attention. It’s going to be a spectacular exhibit.”
Small says he knows many observers will “call Isis a cheetah, guaranteed,”
Laughing, he explained how integral education is to Wildlife Encounters’ mission.
He looks forward to explaining, “No, a cheetah is really a big cousin of this one … most people have never heard of a serval.”
“There will be parents — they drop off their kids at Wildlife Encounters, and they’ll come back two hours later cause their kids are still there. Those are kids that are probably going to grow up to work for us!”
“We always get the most interesting questions from the adults,” Small said, “Such as ‘how did you catch it?’ (Animals are never taken directly from the wild.) Medusa was a confiscation out of Maine. We get some of our animals from assisting law enforcement.”
Small details: “Our exhibit is staffed — this is what makes our exhibit unique and it’s why a lot of people hire us. A lot of companies go around, they set the animal up, and then they go sit around and twiddle their thumbs and let the public walk by.
“What makes us different is we make the effort to engage everyone who walks by … generally we don’t label our animals because that allows us to educate the public. Generally, our rule is, don’t bring chairs. It’s highly personal, highly educational, and highly interactive.”
Small can’t deny the exhibit’s certain popularity. “The kids always love it,” he said.
“And we get the opportunity the educate children on respecting wildlife. For example, as of June 7, New Hampshire pet stores can no longer sell alligators and crocodiles. What that means for us is, people can no longer touch them … if it’s not legal for a pet store to sell, I can’t let anybody touch it … but it’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about respect. That these animals cannot be kept as pets.
“One of my missions, as an educator, in a situation like this is to assist … in educating the general public about the legal status of wildlife and endangered species.”
“The SICF has annually been one of the major exhibit events we (Wildlife Encounters) look forward to the most,” said Small.
“It’s our local community, people come up to us, that we’ve done their kids’ birthday parties three years in a row, and we know people’s names. It’s one of our favorite events because we know people, and everybody is so supportive.”
For more information on the Somersworth International Children’s Festival, visit www.nhfestivals.org/sicf.htm or call 692-5869.
For more information on Wildlife Encounters, visit