Inside JCPRD: Nature center cares for a wide variety of critters

By David Markham

Of all the animals that live at the Ernie Miller Nature Center – a lineup that includes insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians – which would you think has the most diverse diet?

I would have never guessed that the answer is a Kansas native that I commonly see in my neighborhood.

“Our opossum has the most varied diet because she is an omnivore and a scavenger,” said Outdoor Education Specialist Andrea Joslin. “She eats mice, eggs, tuna, cheese, birds of prey diet (a fortified ground beef product), cat food, seeds and nuts, insects and worms, fruits and vegetables. She also gets Cheerios, whole grain crackers and pasta, and supplements like brewer’s yeast and Vitamin E.”

In all, 37 animals live at the nature center, but that number could soon change because the center’s walking sticks have eggs and are expecting.

“Animals here at the nature center are ambassadors for their species and the animal kingdom as a whole,” Joslin said. “Our animals play an important role in helping us connect the public to nature and animals. Wildlife programs like Birds of Prey, Wildlife Webs, Snakes Alive and Kids and Critters help us teach about different concepts such as food chains, animal groups, animal myths, and animal adaptations.”

Some animals are used during programs at the center, others are part of outreach programs that go to daycare centers, preschools, schools, and senior centers, and still others are on display for the public to view when they visit.

Joslin stressed that while the nature center works with wildlife rehabilitators to provide homes at the center for some animals that cannot be rereleased into the wild, Ernie Miller Nature Center does not do wildlife rehabilitation and cannot take injured, orphaned, or wild animals from the public.

In addition to the animals already mentioned, animal residents at the nature center include: a great horned owl, red tailed hawk, an American kestrel, screech owl, slender glass lizard, common milk snake, great plains snake, Mexican milk snake, prairie king snake, rough green snake, black rat snake, three three-toed box turtles, two ornate box turtles, a spiny softshell turtle, two eastern barred tiger salamanders, two rose-haired tarantulas, a blue gill (fish), a sunfish, speckled king snake, an American toad, two eastern grey tree frogs, hissing cockroach, a domestic rabbit, opossum, and two domestic ferrets.

With this wide variety of animal residents, it should come as no surprise that mealtime means a very diverse menu is needed.

“We have anything from simple cat food for the ferrets and opossum to a freezer full of frozen mice, chicks, and birds of prey diet,” Joslin said. “Some of our animals eat every day, some three times a week, and the snakes eat once every other week. We have lots of fresh produce on hand, rodent chow, rabbit pellets, timothy hay, and live feeder mice that we breed for food along with crickets, meal worms, and red wiggler worms.”

Caring for the animals means much more than just feeding them. There’s constant spot cleaning, plus weekly deep cleaning of every cage, and a partial weekly water change for the center’s 500-gallon aquarium.

“We do enrichment or exercise for some of the animals,” Joslin added. “In addition there is lots of ordering and going to pet and feed stores and grocery stores for food and supplies. We work with a vet, have occasional medicines to administer, nails and beaks to trim, and we have permits that we must keep up to date. We also work with the public, a pet store, and grocery stores to get donations.”

Contingency plans are in place to make sure the nature center’s animals are cared for, and animals that come to the center’s outdoor feeders are still fed, even while the nature center is closed for the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our animals are one of our most important resources here at the nature center,” Joslin said. “We will continue to provide the quality care they need and hope you come see them at the nature center and/or programs once we reopen.”