Merald Clark opened a book big enough for two laps and told a story about an Indian girl who played with otters, but all eyes were on the snake.
A group of kids, about eight or 11 at any given time, listened from their lily pad pillows on the floor on Friday as part of a Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department ecology program called “Frogs and Friends.”
For about five years the class was called “Feed-a-Frog Friday.” But, as with any live show, there are no guarantees.
And after some bouts of stage fright, or lacks of appetites, the name was pulled to relieve some pressure and expectations.
The program starts with broad explanations about the vertebras and the non, mammals, the fish and birds, and finally, amphibians and reptiles — made all the more understandable by the examples of shells and stuffed animals that lined the walls.
It took about 15 minutes to get to the action.
Clark, a nature assistant at the center, dipped behind his folding-display table, leaving the question of what he was grabbing to linger.
“Snake!” one kid yelled.
“Toad!” suggested another.
First it was an almost glowing green tree frog. Then a red and its duller, grey friend — a pair of southern toads — ignored the cricket frenzy feast.
Clark followed the introduction of every new species with its proper, Latin name.
He taught the children to say more difficult phrases as if they were saying the names of spells at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“Anaxyrus terrestris. Anaxyrus terrestris. Anaxyrus terrestris,” they all chanted.
By the third time, they had it — almost.
The room leaned in when he put the next container on the table.
This was no tree frog.
When the cane toad, or Bufo marinus, lunged its body against the container, even the adults in the room jumped.
He put on rubber gloves to handle the softball-sized amphibian — for its protection.
With the toad in one hand and the other cupped beneath, ready to catch any threat-induced pee, Clark explained how it was once brought to Florida to eat the things that eat the sugar cane crop. But now it’s a problem.
It eats everything. Even birds.
“Birds?” one boy asked. “That’s crazy? Are you sure you’re not kidding?”
“They’re probably small birds,” Clark responded.
Then came Spudly. Or John. They’re not too clear or worried about what to call him.
He’s a box turtle, who’s been a performer at the Center for less than a year.
Clark placed him on the ground, in front of the wide-eyed audience, with its curious hands.
With a pair of forearm-sized tweezers, he coaxed a mealworm in front of the turtle’s face.
Ooo’s, ew’s and aw’s filled the room.
For about five minutes, Spudly does his thing — looking cute somehow while gnawing on a beetle larva.
Clark curbed the excitement with a story about a little girl who played with an otter family. Dora must have known it was mealtime.
She left two thirds of herself inside her hiding hut as the rest swayed around the cage. Her tung flicked as she tried to picture the world. Clark’s otter story had some competition.
“Let’s see if Dora is hungry,” he said.
Even though she’s just a friend of the frogs, she steals the show. Once again, the giant tweezers picked up the meal — a dead mouse — and dangled it in front of Dora like a punching bag.
It didn’t take long for the lesson to turn to the digestive process and metabolism of snakes.
The center has about 11 terrariums that house mostly Florida-native critters, but it keeps a few invasive species, like the Cane Toad, for teaching lessons.
Matthew Weiler, 42, of Gainesville, brought his boys Gus, 4, Sam, 7 and David Disalvo, 42, to the class. He said he thought it’d be enjoyable and educational way for them to spend some time.
“They like collecting things,” Weiler said. “They’re small boys, they’re universally inquisitive about the world around them.”
The Frog and Friends classes are held the first Friday of the month at Morningside Nature Center.
Photos and story by Alex Catalano.