The Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) hosted its first Wildlife Festival last Saturday. The event featured not only animal taxidermy and specimens from the museum’s collections, but also a host of live animals, from birds of prey to spiders, scorpions, turtles, lizards, and snakes.
“Originally we were going to start with a reptile festival,” said Visitor Services and Events Manager Robbie Hendrix. However, “I reached out to a lot of the vendors and a lot of people were busy.”
So, he said, the museum decided to take a different tact and broaden the scope of the festival.
He contacted Darin Handy of All Are God’s Creatures Wildlife Rescue, the Kernersville Zoo, falconer and raptor rehabilitation specialist Rob Hearst, as well as food trucks, a face painter, and other presenters.
“It was definitely a task, but I love doing it,” Hendrix said.
Handy brought nearly 20 animals for visitors to enjoy, including an African spurred tortoise that roamed freely around a classroom on the museum’s education level as visitors looked at a black widow spider, a timber rattlesnake, a deathstalker scorpion, and had the opportunity to handle some non-venomous snakes under the watchful eye of Handy and his assistant.
By mid-afternoon, VMNH Marketing and Public Relations Manager Zach Ryder said the festival had already welcomed more than 600 attendees, with three hours left to go before its conclusion.
Typically, he said, the museum’s festivals draw audiences from a 50- to 90-mile radius.
“For most of our festivals, we have a healthy amount of not just local people, but (people) from the Greensboro area, Danville, Raleigh, Roanoke, and Lynchburg as well.”
Attendees enjoyed BBQ sandwiches and sno-cones from food trucks stationed outside. On the plaza, Animal Control officer Jayme Clark, of the Martinsville Police Department, helped showcase a nearly 20-foot long reticulated python.
Ryder said organizing the event was a team effort that included not only Hendrix but a number of other staffers including those in education, who were offering several art activities for children in the museum’s special exhibit hall.
In the Hall of Ancient Life, museum staff and volunteers showcased collections of insects, ancient bones from some of the earliest mammals, and study skins of birds. Taxidermy ducks surrounded the room. In one corner, children and adults lined up to have their faces painted, often leaving with whiskers and tiger stripes, or with a snake painted down the side of their face. Elsewhere, a balloon artist created balloon animals for visitors to take home.
“It’s important to offer these kinds of events, not just for our local community but for our region as a whole,” Ryder said as behind him, the python slithered around on the plaza to the delight (and sometimes terror) of adults and children alike. “They’re really fun events that introduce lots of different people from lots of different areas to the museum.”
Though there was an admission fee for most visitors, those with economic hardship were also able to attend thanks to a partnership with Hooker Furnishings, Hendrix said. The company has worked with VMNH to provide free museum and festival admission to those who present an EBT card and valid identification. Museum Director Joe Keiper later confirmed that around 17 percent of festival attendees were able to come free of charge through that partnership.
Wildlife Festival included a number of educational elements. Not only did the museum’s curators and staff share their knowledge with curious visitors, but Clark and Handy, along with Katie Martin of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, presented various talks throughout the day.
Handy’s talk, “Wild Wonders in Your Backyard” was the final presentation of the day. He told his audience that the Appalachian Mountains, which run through Virginia, boasts one of the most unique ecosystems in the entire world, and Virginia as a whole is home to an incredibly diverse range of species.
Handy discussed a number of topics, including cautioning people not to remove turtles from roadways by picking them up by the tail.
“That’s a very harmful thing to do,” he said, noting that turtles had heavy bodies and picking it up by the tail could contort the spine and possibly paralyze the animal.
“The number one thing you can do with things you’re uncomfortable with in the wild is to stay calm, cool, and collected,” he said.
He encouraged listeners to take the time to engage with and educate themselves about the natural world, and to do their part to help conserve it.
“If each single one of us would do this just a little bit every day, we would make a difference so these younger kids, when they grow up, they have something to see in nature that is the most wondrous thing in the world,” Handy said.
“If we would all get out and look a little more, put down our electronic devices, slow down, and get outside, you don’t have to know what every insect or snake or bird is—just get out and listen to them, look at them, just start looking more at what’s around you because that will make you appreciate it more. And if you appreciate it more, you’ll tend to try to be sure it’s here tomorrow.”
The 2022 Wildlife Festival was sponsored by the Helen S. and Charles G. Patterson, Jr. Charitable Foundation Trust.