Jeannette Ross photos
In the universe of summer camp, Monty, Franklin, Waffles, and Charlie are rock stars. M&M and Squirt have their share of fans, too.

They are just some of the animals at Woodcock Nature Center that help teach youngsters about the role they play in the environment. For those who have not met them, Monty is an African ball python, Franklin is a spotted turtle, Waffles is a bearded dragon lizard, and Charlie is a blue tongue skink. M&M and Squirt are baby painted turtles.

“They capture the kids’ imagination the way nothing else can,” said Mike Rubbo, the center’s executive director.

Last Thursday a group of fifth and sixth graders who make up the Green Team sat in a circle patiently waiting to get up close and personal with two of the resident animals, a native species and an exotic. Juanita, a box turtle estimated to be 25 years old, represented the native side while Monty was the exotic.

Juanita came out first and each camper held her carefully with her beak turned away “because she might think it was a worm,” said Sarah Breznen, the summer camp director and education coordinator. She explained that Juanita’s nails are not for scratching but for digging up grubs, bugs, and larva. She also said the turtle can eat poisonous mushrooms.

When Juanita was placed in the center of the circle and given a few larva to eat she proved turtles are not as slow as their reputation, quickly snapping them up.

One camper asked if painted turtles have predators and Breznen said no, but they suffer from habitat loss and are often killed by cars.

Seeming to enjoy her role as center of attention, Juanita did not retreat into her shell as she was passed from one set of hands to another.

Monty, an elder statesman in the world of snakes, was also at ease with the campers as he was draped on one set of shoulders after another. Not one camper recoiled, although they did giggle and squirm a little as Monty sniffed each by flicking his tongue against their cheek.

Monty came to Woodcock 15 years ago after being found on the side of a road, apparently an abandoned pet. He was full-grown at the time and so it’s estimated he’s 17 to 20 years old, but he could be older.

Monty is in the process of shedding, evident by his cloudy eyes and pink underside. He’s reaching the elderly state, “but still awesome,” Breznen said.

The nature center has a number of exotic animals because they are unwanted pets. They teach the children responsible pet ownership because many can live a long time and often have specific needs.

Other animals, such as the birds, have been injured and can’t be released back into the wild. Rubbo is working on getting the birds — two barred owls, a great horned owl, and a red-tail hawk — glove trained.

“That’s a major goal,” he said. “They’ve been here 15 years and no one worked with them. It’s a big wow to a lot of kids.”

Both Rubbo and Breznen stressed, however, the nature center does not accept unwanted exotics or native species, referring owners to rescue organizations.

“Because of their expense, we are limiting our acquisitions,” Rubbo said. The nature center now has about 30 animals and four birds. Because it costs $15,000 a year to pay for food, bedding and lighting — which is a big part of the center’s budget — they have embarked on a Feeding Frenzy fund-raiser.

The reptiles go through 12 dozen crickets a week as well as fresh fruit and other items that make up a healthy diet. The birds cost $12 a day which is more than $4,000 a year. They and the snakes eat dead rodents. Dead mice don’t come cheap, especially when you buy them by the thousands.

Anyone wishing to make a donation may do so at http://bit.ly/2tvo5T0.

Paying the food bill is vital because the animals are central to Woodcock’s educational programs.

“They capture the kids’ attention,” Rubbo said in teaching about the local ecology and conservation. “It makes it more real to them.”