On Tuesday I went to the WNC Nature Center with my friends Randee and Heather.
We had fun. The Nature Center is a great place, even for grownups, and admission is a shockingly low $7.
I am conflicted about zoos. It’s somehow such a completely human thing to find something beautiful in the wild, capture it, cage it and show it off to the young under the guise of education. But is that really how we want to introduce kids to wild animals — through creatures completely removed from their habitat, living their lives in cages? Polar bears pace in zoos because in the wild they have a roaming range the size of South Carolina, not the size of a big back yard.
But this is a nature center, not a zoo. The creatures here are mostly reptiles and local animals like wolves and black bears. There’s even a clean and well-kept petting zoo of uncommon livestock, like the Belted Galloway cow and the Sicilian Donkey. (Wish I’d taken pictures of those.)
In the reptile exhibit, which I loved, a Nature Center employee took out an Eastern Corn Snake to show us. I wish I had thought to take a picture, but I was enraptured by the snake. He wouldn’t let us call the snake “it” or “he” — the snake was female. She was rusty red with white rings and flawless scales that gleamed like silica. We got to touch her body, which was dry and muscular, and somehow soft. Her red tongue was long and forked and fluttered in and out of her mouth. Though the children were told not to put their hands near her head, they seemed unable to resist sticking their fingers where they’d feel the touch of her flickering tongue.
She was a beautiful thing.
But mostly we came for the “Beauty of Butterflies” exhibit, a brand-new outdoor summertime exhibit of live native butterflies.
It was shaped like a greenhouse and made of netting. There were butterfly-friendly plants inside, and the air was full of wings. There were lots of kids and plenty of adults, most of us rather enchanted. The gentleman in the back right corner is a Nature Center employee who deserves a raise. He was helpful, enthusiastic and just delighted to tell you about the butterflies in the exhibit. Look how he has got the two people he’s talking to looking at something.
You can’t see it, but in his right hand is a spray bottle full of sugar water. He’d ask to spray your hands with it. This is why:
You’d put your hand near a butterfly (they were everywhere), and it would gladly step on and drink the sugar water from your fingers with its slender black straw of a tongue.
See the liquid on my fingers, and the long pipe of a tongue extending from the butterfly’s head?
This butterfly was very happy on my hand and stayed there for minutes on end, drinking.
Heather was even luckier, and found herself with a little hitchhiker:
Look at all the butterflies on the netting above her.
Here is a magic cabinet full of live butterfly chrysalises, brown and hanging like bats:
At the bottom of the cabinet where you can’t see them are freshly hatched butterflies whose new and wrinkled wings are unfolding and unfurling.
We stepped out of the butterfly exhibit only to find this vision:
A handsome peacock whose imperial neck really was that magnificent shade of iridescent blue.
Then we went to see the boy and girl otter play in the water and groom each other.
I wish they had homes in the wild. But they were beautiful, their enclosure was clean, and they have the company of their kind.
When I was a child my grandmother took me to the circus. There was a tiger who was forced to perform tricks by a man who snapped a whip in its striped face and shot off loud blanks with a gun. The animal was beautiful and seemed angry. It growled. The circus lights were hot and red. I remember the audience being silent, not applauding, like were were not at the circus anymore but watching some weird rite.
After the show my grandmother and I walked back to the car without saying anything. I felt that I had seen an animal that was supposed to be something other than the brutish, angry thing it was, snarling under red lights for children with chins made greasy from popcorn.
But this wasn’t like that. The otters truly seemed carefree, twining around one another and then leaping out of the water like fish to groom one another on a painted concrete shore.
But is this what we want our children to see? Otters behind glass?
Isn’t there a better way?