Beech Creek gardens popular place for children and critters

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Beech Creek Botanical Garden
Nancy Baker-Cazan introduces Nova the corn snake to young visitors during one of the Critter Features programs at the Beech Creek Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Stark County's Washington Township. (Barbara Mudrak photo)

It was a hot and steamy day, but families kept coming to the Beech Creek Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Stark County’s Washington Township. Many came for the Critter Features programs, which are every Monday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.

On this day, they were able to meet and learn about Lota, the ball python, and Nova, the corn snake. Others wanted to see the many critters housed in the Amazing Garden Plant Science Center, including Beatrice the bearded dragon and the big-eyed sugar gliders. Still others headed straight for the Butterfly House, a place saturated with color from both flowers and 21 species of butterflies, moths and skippers, all native to Ohio.

Ellie Lou Basalla, 4, was excited to catch a butterfly on a cotton swab soaked in sugar water. But her favorite thing about Beech Creek doesn’t have wings. “I love the bunny,” she said of the resident rabbit, Blackberry, who isn’t really a bunny anymore at age 11.

Her brother Donovan, 7, a student at West Branch Elementary, says he comes to see the turtles, which get to spend their days outdoors in landscaping ponds in the summer.

Educator

Kim Brown, of Paris, takes care of both their favorites. She has worked as an animal care specialist at Beech Creek for the past two years and also does animal care and rehabilitation at Clover Field Wildlife Care in North Canton. But more than a caregiver, Brown considers herself an educator. She wants folks to get the message that wild creatures should be left in the wild; they don’t make good pets.

Brown and Nancy Baker-Cazan showed off Lota and Nova during the Critter Features programs on July 27. The two were pets that owners couldn’t care for — or care for properly.

Corn snakes

Corn snakes are so named because the pattern on their bellies resembles corn kernels, Baker-Cazan explained as she gave youngsters an opportunity to pet Nova. But they also could have been named that because they prey on mice and rats that eat corn, “so they benefit farmers,” she told the audience.

Although both Nova and Lota are constrictors, Lota had developed a strike reflex because her owners hand fed her with live mice. Brown is re-training her with a period of socialization and exercise followed by a meal of frozen-then-defrosted mice.

Rescue turtles

Brown is the one who transports the turtles to their outdoor ponds every morning and serves them floating pellets along with fruits, vegetables and insects. All of the turtles were rescued, or were given up by their owners — like the leopard geckos, whose owner could no longer care for them when she went off to college.

People who pick up a turtle and bring it home don’t realize that they require special diets and environments, including expensive UVA/UVB lights to give them strong bones and shells, Brown said. Tootsie the Russian tortoise lived in a family’s bathtub until the dog used her as a chew toy, requiring extensive treatment to repair the damage to her shell. “And turtles can live for 80 years,” she said, cradling three who could easily be 20- or 30-somethings.

Helping the environment

Brown also teaches visitors that every creature she cares for plays a part in the environment. The hissing cockroaches, for instance, are masters of decomposition.

Brown uses Rosie the rose-haired tarantula to teach about the benefits of spiders, which consume vast quantities of insects.

“They say if you took spiders off the planet, humans could only live for three days because there would be so many bugs,” she said.

In addition to the Butterfly House and Amazing Garden, visitors can enjoy the Nature Playgrounds, Botanical Garden, Caterpillar Nursery and the many nature trails at Beech Creek.

Raptor Hollow

The center’s website, beechcreekgardens.org, offers trail maps and scavenger hunts for each trail that can be downloaded before your visit. At the end of one of those trails is Raptor Hallow, a sanctuary for birds of prey — and one silver fox.

Executive Director Josh “Bird Man” Kuszmaul and Jeff Lewis, director of operations, built four enclosures called “mews” for the birds and one for Todd, who was rescued from a fur farm as a puppy.

“This was Josh’s dream,” said Lewis, who met Kuszmaul at Ohio State University 10 years ago and is now using his law degree — and desire to learn about birds — to run the sanctuary as a nonprofit. It is independent from the Beech Creek center but works in cooperation with it, including exhibiting some rescued macaws in the Amazing Gardens building.

Other residents of the Hallow include Sammie the Harris’s Hawk, who is famous in the falconry world for surviving electrocution after landing on an electrical wire. He has also survived Lyme disease, Lewis said.

Cherokee, the Red-tailed Hawk, was hit by a car and is missing his right eye. Intern Miranda Rummell, a senior zoology major at Kent State University, gives him flight therapy since he can’t judge distance or see on his right side.

Then there’s Igor, a black vulture. He was born in the wild but imprinted on humans, and ended up harassing picnickers in his native Auburn, Alabama.

“He’s like a dog because he’s super friendly and follows us everywhere,” Lewis said.

Last but not least is Enzo, a Eurasian Eagle-owl, one of the largest species of owl in the world. Hatched in captivity, Enzo has been an education bird all his life. “He teaches us not to poison mice because that poisons owls and other creatures that prey on them,” Lewis said. “Trap the mice instead.”

COVID closure

Enzo and the docents at Beech Creek are again getting opportunities to educate the public. The many trails around the center remained open, but buildings were closed for three months due to COVID-19.

That means the center was not collecting the usual $8 per person entry fees, nor rental fees for weddings and other events. That left it operating with a $75,000 deficit and in danger of closing. That deficit was reduced in part by the sale of succulent arrangements made by the 17 Beech Creek employees, but more fundraisers are planned.

Raptor Hallow has a donation jar at the entrance to its trail, but it was absent during the shutdown. That left Kuszmaul and Lewis to pay much of the operating costs out of their pockets. They are seeking monetary donations through their website, raptorhallow.org.

And like the Beech Creek center, they are also seeking donations of bedding, supplies and, most of all, food for the creatures they care for. In Raptor Hallow, that means meat — raw meat, although frozen mice and muskrats trapped by the ODNR will do in a pinch.

And what delicacy do the four raptors and Todd prefer? “Hearts and livers are the best,” Lewis said.

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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