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That’s Wild!

Andalusia Elementary School fifth graders had a wild time of learning Thursday as they took a field trip to the Open Pond Recreational Area. They learned about the plants and animals that are found in the region and the way they all work together to create a functioning ecosystem.

Students were even given the opportunity to pet and hold some of the more exotic animal denizens of the Conecuh National Forest — salamanders and the Eastern king snake.

“It was slimy and also really wet,” said Madison Robbins after touching an Amphiuma salamander. “It tickled when it moved and felt really funny. At first I didn’t know if I wanted to hold it, but I guess it was okay.”

Local biologist Jimmy Stiles showed the students examples of four animals found in the local ecosystem — the spotted salamander, the Amphiuma salamander, the pine snake and the Eastern king snake.

“I love doing programs like this,” Stiles said. “I’ve been involved in them for about 18 years now and we do them for everyone from kindergarten kids to people in nursing homes. But I love seeing the reactions that the kids give when you first bring out the animals.

“It’s funny, because some kids won’t even look at the animal at first, but by the time the presentation is over, they’ll be petting them and playing with them.”

AES fifth grader Charles Locke even agreed to let Stiles wrap the king snake around the back of his neck.

“It was really cold at first,” he said. “I’ve had a great time here today. I liked going off and exploring the pond. We even saw an alligator down there (by the pond).”

Students from the five fifth grade classes were divided up into four learning stations, each focusing on a specific subject pertaining to the Open Pond area and the Longleaf pine tree ecosystem. Paul Gilliland led the children on a hike through one of the area’s trails, wildlife biologists Keith Kip and Justin Monk led a discussion about mammals who live in the area; and Neal Dansby showed the students how Indian tribes who lived in the area used its wildlife to create clothing and other artifacts.

“This is a wonderful thing for the kids; they love it,” AES fifth grade teacher Sandra Dendy said. “They’ve been studying ecosystems at school for the last nine weeks, and have been focusing primarily on the ecosystems here in Covington County. We read the book Longleaf, and a lot of what we’ve seen here was discussed in that book.”

Dendy said the fifth graders have taken field trips to the Open Pond area in previous years, but this was the first time they had the opportunity to touch some of the animals.

“This was a nice surprise for the kids,” she said. “They didn’t know which animals they might get the chance to touch, so it was a nice treat for them. The people here with the Forestry Service do a great job of making it fun for the kids.”

With Alabama schools facing a budget crunch, it has become more difficult for educators to find affordable field trips for their students. Dendy said Andalusia students are lucky to have such an educational resource like the Conecuh National Forest located just a short bus drive away.

“It’s wonderful that we have the option to come here and give the kids a chance to learn outside the school building,” she said. “You can’t say enough nice things about (AES fifth grade science teacher) Deb Hughes. She helped to coordinate this trip. You can tell that she has a passion for what she teaches and we’re lucky to have her.”