Youngsters meet slithery, scaly, screechy friends at Smart Start program

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 24, 2013

Piney and Uno and Mr. Needles made some new friends Wednesday morning at a nature program presented by Smart Start Rowan.
Bob Pendergrass, nature center supervisor at Dan Nicholas Park, introduced some two dozen youngsters to animals with scales, fur and feathers. Drake, the bearded dragon, and Mad Max, a blue-tongued skink, fascinated the children.
Pendergrass asked the children what they thought the next creature might be, as he held an orange pillowcase in front of them. The children correctly guessed it was a snake.
“Do you think it’s poisonous?” he asked, reaching inside the pillowcase.
“If it were poisonous, you wouldn’t be sticking your hand in,” said Chad Safrit, who’d brought a group of 4- and 5-year-olds from South Rowan Academy in China Grove.
Safrit was correct. Pendergrass brought out a pine snake, with scales of black, white and gray. This snake is native to the eastern part of North Carolina, he explained.
“I think he looks pretty calm, don’t you?” Pendergrass asked, and the children nodded.
He continued, “If you saw a snake outside your house, would you want to try to touch one?”
No, the children agreed.
“It’s not a good idea,” Pendergrass said. “They may bite because they’re scared, and some snakes are poisonous.”
Since Piney was born at a nature center, he has been around people all his life, and is used to them, Pendergrass said, as Piney wrapped himself around Pendergrass’ left hand.
Pine snakes can grow to more than 7 feet long, he added.
A furry creature was next on the list, and Uno the cute chinchilla elicited a round of “Awwwwws” from the children.
Pendergrass said Uno was a curious mixture with his Mickey Mouse ears and his squirrel-like tail. Indeed, he is a member of the rodent family, and makes his home underground.
Mr. Needles, on the other hand, was a bit temperamental, Pendergrass said. The hedgehog stayed rolled in a tight ball for the time Pendergrass held him in his hands.
“He’s an insectivore,” Pendergrass said. “What do you think he eats?”
“Bugs!” one little boy piped up.
“Yes, he likes bugs,” Pendergrass said. “I think he’s pretty cool even though he does have a bad attitude.”
Screechy was a bit friendlier. Screechy is an 11-year-old screech owl who perched placidly on Pendergrass’ fingers. Pendergrass told the children that Screechy has oversized eyes and extra-special hearing. Screech owls can catch their prey in the dark, he noted.
The program concluded with a reading of “Under Ground,” a Scholastic book by Denise Fleming. Each child took home a copy.
“The children did very well for kids that age,” Pendergrass noted. “They were very attentive.”
“We’ve been studying farm animals,” Safrit said, as his well-behaved group lined up to return to China Grove. “This is a good addition to our study.”
Afterward, the staff crowded around Pendergrass to pet Uno and ask further questions. Smart Start offers occasional events such as this to promote reading and education, and make the public aware of its programs.
Robert Leslie, Smart Start’s executive director, popped in for only a moment.
“I really do not like snakes,” he said, a bit bashfully.
For more information about Smart Start Rowan, call www. 704-630-9085 or visit

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.