by Jessica Covello
SMITHTOWN, NY— February 16, 2014
On Sunday afternoon, about 30 children and their parents piled into Sweetbriar Nature Center. The children waited anxiously on the carpet as Isabel Fernandes pulled an enormous Savannah Monitor lizard out of its crate. Little ones were both horrified and excited as it flicked its long, snake-like tongue onto their outstretched hands.
Leapin’ Lizards is an educational animal show at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, NY. It occurs during February, which is referred to as “Lizard Month” at Sweetbriar.
Fernandes, the Animal Care Coordinator, presented visitors with a variety of lizards, and a few amphibians, that they could interact with in an experience that was very up-close-and-personal. Fernandes educated children about lizard traits, like their defense mechanisms and eating habits.
The show’s guests included a Legless lizard, a Satanic Leaf-Tailed gecko and a massive iguana named Darwin. Children were encouraged to touch the animals and after the lesson, they performed experiments designed to educate them about lizard habits.
“There isn’t any type of lizard that is native to Long Island,” Fernandes said to the group. Animal programs like these provide a unique experience for children, and allow them to encounter creatures that cannot be found locally.
Some of the lizards live at the rehabilitation center, and others, like a chameleon, were donated by surrounding animal centers for the show.
Sweetbriar currently cares for 96 permanent residents, and can house up to 1000 animals for rehabilitation per year. The 54-acre property has been caring for Long Island’s creatures since 1975.
Edith Blydenburgh, the original property owner, donated part of the land to what was then called the Environmental Centers of Setauket-Smithtown in 1975. Blydenburgh wanted to ensure the land would remain an animal sanctuary after she passed away. When she did, in 1980, the rest of the property was taken over by the Nature Center.
Since then, the center has become dedicated to environmental education. “We talk to schools, scouts, and anyone and anybody who’s interested in learning about animals and the environment,” said Fernandes.
They host a multitude of programs for a small fee, from nocturnal nature walks and a spring festival, to butterfly shows.
Sweetbriar also works with local scout troops and public libraries to further their goal to educate the public about proper animal care and rehabilitation.
Hanna Pedersen, a Wildlife Rehabilitator at the center, said that their animal programs serve to educate not only children, but their parents as well. “The kids can pass on what they learn to their parents, and that can really make a difference.”
Fernandes said the importance of Sweetbriar’s animal events, besides education, is the experience that they provide for children.
“It’s important to get connected to nature,” said Fernandes. “Especially living on Long Island, where we’re losing nature habitats, it helps them realize they’re a part of something bigger.”
Leapin’ Lizards was Sweetbriar’s fourth educational animal program of 2014. Their next program, called Ssssssensational Snakes, will take place on March 14.