Pythons, Chinchillas, Coati-Oh My!

October, 2005

by Kathy Henderson ’99

11-221Derek Small ’95 takes his wildlife on the road. Wildlife Encounters, LLC is not only a mobile zoo, it’s a traveling science class, and Small’s enthusiastic students range from preschoolers to senior citizens. For the last four years, he has traveled thousands of miles throughout northern New England, taking his wiggling, hopping, creeping, crawling educational opportunity with him.

Small’s residence in Rochester, N.H., is the home base and five-star habitat for approximately 120 animals ranging across 45 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and bugs. Some are rare or endangered species, and Small is one of only a few in New England outside the large metropolitan zoos who are fully licensed to care for and handle some of them.

“My fascination with animals goes back a long way,” says Small. “I grew up on a farm in Gardiner, Maine. I loved animals but I’d had a lifelong terror of snakes. When I was a junior at Plymouth State I was with a friend at Fox Park who decided she was going to help cure me of the phobia. My fear turned to fascination, and by the time I graduated I found myself taking in unwanted exotic animals, including snakes.”

Life certainly took an interesting turn for Small, who graduated from Plymouth State with a Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science. He explains, “There was so much I needed to know about the wildlife to make sure they were getting everything they needed. I kept reading and studying and the more I learned the more I realized how important conservation and habitat protection were to preserving so many endangered species. I wanted to teach that to others.”

The dilemma was how to go about it. It was expensive and time consuming to properly care for such a wide variety of living creatures, not to mention other overhead costs such as insurance and licensing fees and transporting so many different species safely to the demonstration sites. “I decided to start out in a partnership with a Massachusetts company,” says Small. “That lasted for about two years until I decided there was a better way to accomplish things. I started Wildlife Encounters out of my home, and it’s amazing how popular the program is.”

All programs, exhibits and assembly presentations are delivered by professional wildlife educators in classrooms, nursing homes, businesses, summer camps, festivals, fundraising events and private residences. Staff and volunteers have backgrounds in formal education, child development, curriculum development, biology, zoology, veterinary medicine, wildlife rehabilitation, and animal training and welfare. Of his assistant and wildlife educator, who has been with the organization since it began, Small says regretfully, “I’ll be losing Amy Kaplan to veterinary school this year. She’s not only terrific with the animals, she’s great with people and a wonderful teacher who will be missed.”

Businesses like Wildlife Encounters are stringently regulated at both the state and federal level, and Small’s personal standards for animal care and treatment are especially rigorous. “I’m not only inspected on a regular basis by a state veterinarian, I’m subject to surprise inspections at any time by federal inspectors. If a qualified person such as me or someone on my staff isn’t on the premises to grant access to the animal areas, that’s a federal offense.” Wildlife Encounters holds a USDA Class C exhibitor license, as well as membership in the New Hampshire Science Teachers Association, the Association of Professional Wildlife Educators and the American Association of Zookeepers. All company appearances are fully insured regardless of location.

Three of the most popular traveling programs are the Junior Zookeeper Encounter offering hands-on experience with smaller mammals, reptiles, bugs and amphibians; the GLOBALtour Encounter, a virtual safari with exotic animals from distant places and endangered habitats; and the X-treme Encounter, with exotic mammals, giant pythons, alligators, tortoises and chameleons. “Wherever we go,” says Small, “the chinchillas are hands-down our most popular animal among every age group.” Also offered are Earth’s Classroom Enrichment Programs designed to help students achieve proficiency standards as outlined in the N.H. Department of Education Curriculum Frameworks for K-12 science, while also helping to develop skills in math, social studies and the visual arts.

Small gets phone calls at home and on the road on a regular basis from animal shelters and animal control authorities asking for his assistance with difficult situations. He’s made many rescues over the years. “I got a call from Maine Fisheries and Wildlife on Christmas Eve last year,” he explains. “They’d taken possession of a 10-foot long Burmese python that had been kept illegally and confiscated. If they couldn’t find someone to take it, it would have to be destroyed. I went and got it, and it’s now part of the Wildlife family.”

In addition to owning and managing Wildlife Encounters, Small has a fulltime job at the Rochester Home Depot, as well as a wife, two young daughters, and a third child on the way. “With the travel, it can get pretty exhausting sometimes,” he admits. “But I love what I do and I can’t imagine myself not doing it.”

While the entertainment factor is a great learning aid, Small takes the teaching aspect very seriously. Holding Mowgli, believed to be the only white-nosed coatimundi in New Hampshire, he explains, “One thing I always tell my audiences, particularly the kids, is ‘Wild things need wild places.’ I teach that wild animals are not meant to be house pets, and take a strong stance against the practice of taking animals from the wild. Most important, I want my audiences to know that some of the creatures they’re seeing and touching are losing their habitats and face other environmental dangers. It’s important for them to realize that it will one day be up to them to practice the conservation and environmental responsibility that could save animals like Mowgli from extinction.”

Learn more about Wildlife Encounters, LLC at www.wildlifeencountersllc.com


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