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Article posted: 6/26/2012 11:39 AM

Nature center's Wild Wednesdays offers animals to meet and so much more

Oakbrook Terrace nature center’s program lets kids meet exotic animals, enjoy the outdoors

By Susan Dibble

Luke the peacock was attracting a crowd of young admirers during the Wild Wednesdays program at Oakbrook Terrace Park District's Lake View Nature Center.

"He was awesome," said Becca Helsdon, 7, of Villa Park after having her chance to pet the colorful bird.

Luke's handler, Erin Yanz of Nature's Creatures Animal Show, answered questions and explained that Luke uses his iridescent tail to attract females and scare off predators.

"It's just great for kids to see something like this up close and touch it," she said. "He's friendly and he doesn't peck or anything."

Near Luke sat a large bottle of hand sanitizer. As an experienced nature center visitor, Melissa Passero, 5, of Brookfield knew the drill.

"We need to wash our hands if we pet the peacock," she said.

Children are introduced to a different animal each week during Wild Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Wednesday through Aug. 22 (except July 4), at the nature center, 17W063 Hodges Road, Oakbrook Terrace. Featured animals include a few nature center residents like the milk snake and exotic visitors such as a coatimundi, a raccoon-like animal native to the American Southwest.

"I love it. That's how we're able to let my daughters experience nature," said Thuy Lee of Elmhurst, who said she's been coming for four years with daughter Kalyn Gunn, 5, and now Kalyn's younger sister, Lauren Gunn, 3. "Sometimes they have a rare animal exhibit you can't even find in the zoo."

Nature center manager Liane Knight said the Wild Wednesdays program has been running about 10 years and averages 300 visitors a week, depending on the weather and interest in the animal. But the kickoff to this year's series, the fire-bellied toad, drew nearly double the usual number of visitors even though the toad had to stay behind glass.

"Last week, we had 586 (visitors)," Knight said. "Our numbers have increased every year."

The visitors include groups from summer camps, home day care and special recreation associations, as well as area families, Knight said. The program is free, but groups are asked to register ahead.

Wild Wednesdays offers plenty to do. In addition to the animal talks given every hour starting at 10:45 a.m., animal story times begin at 11:15 a.m. and also are held hourly. Visitors are handed different nature hike guides each week that they can bring back filled out to receive a prize.

Then there's the park's other amenities to enjoy -- poles for kids younger than 16 to try their hand at fishing (with bait available at a minimal fee), paddle boats to rent for $3 a half-hour or a four-person swan boat for $5. Families can pack a lunch to eat at one of the many picnic tables; children work off energy at the playground; or explore the exhibits within the nature center itself.

"I think they (families) find it affordable entertainment and educational," Knight said. "We're trying to get the children outdoors."

The $2,500 cost for the visiting animals is offset with sales of popcorn for $1 and lemonade for 50 cents a glass (with free refills), Knight said. The center also received a grant from Wal-Mart this year to help cover the cost, she said.

Tammie Sherwood, a nanny from Elmhurst, said she brings her five charges to the nature center regularly, even in winter. The two older boys, 7 and 5, do projects there, she said.

"They love learning. We even go to the library and get more books on the subject," she said. "To have a resource like this is great."

Melissa's mom, Nicole Passero of Brookfield, said she usually brings Melissa and her younger brother, Mikey, 10 months, every week. This time Melissa's friend, Lily, joined them. After petting the peacock, they were ready to move on to other activities.

"I love you, peacock," Lily called as they walked away.

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