Kathy, McKee, an education coordinator for the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, lets students at Fairview Elementary touch a fox snake named Smiley. Smiley is 2 1/2 years old and is native to Iowa. <span style="font-size: xx-small;"><em>Daily Times Herald photos by Paige Godden</em></span>
Kathy, McKee, an education coordinator for the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, lets students at Fairview Elementary touch a fox snake named Smiley. Smiley is 2 1/2 years old and is native to Iowa. Daily Times Herald photos by Paige Godden
Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Smiley the snake and Pigwidgeon the owl were among the Des Moines zoo animals that Fairview Elementary students saw and touched on Friday as part of a program that brings nature into the classroom.

Be quiet and gentle, warned Kathy McKee, an education coordinator for the Blank Park Zoo who led the session.

The 30 or so third-grade students hushed and tried not to frighten the animals — nor themselves — as McKee talked about them one by one.

First up: Smiley, a 2-year-old fox snake.

The snakes are native to Iowa and live in prairies, McKee said. The snake can unhinge his jaw and eat a mouse whole. Smiley’s brown, camouflaged skin hides him in grass. He looks a lot like a rattle snake and can shake his tail against grass to make a similar sound.

McKee said that’s one of the ways Smiley has adapted to his environment.

Smiley can also give off a foul odor, and that’s why he’s called a fox snake. He smells like a fox.

Some of the children recoiled from the slithering creature. Snakes are poisonous, slimy and they bite, the children told McKee.

“If I wiggled my fingers in front of his face and pinched him he’d bite me. Heck, I’d probably bite me. Otherwise, he won’t,” McKee said.

Next up: a European ferret named Peeta.

Ferrets have mostly abandoned the heavily farmed areas of North America, McKee said, because one of their main prey — prairie dogs — have been driven from the area by farmers.

Prairie dogs dig holes that cows sometimes step into and get stuck and break legs, she said.

In lieu of prairie dogs, ferrets eat mice and hunt at night. Their shadowy fur keeps them hidden in the dark.

Peeta has a long, skinny body with a lot of bones in his back so he can get down in holes to stalk rodents and then turn himself around so he can go back above ground head first.

He also stinks like a skunk but doesn’t spray. It’s just his natural odor.

Then came Pigwidgeon the screech owl and Toe Ring the alligator, a young guy of 2 feet who will eventually grow up to 8 feet long.

Alligators have up to 82 teeth, and Toe Ring was the most fearsome for the students. One girl stood for a long while deciding whether to reach out a hand before she decided: “I can’t do it.”

McKee said it’s important for students to see animals in person so they understand them better and don’t rely on what they see on TV.

This visit was free to the school because a group of third-grade teachers signed up for McKee’s summer professional-development program. She asked the students what are their favorite animals at the zoo.

Giraffes, tigers, fish, lemurs, ostriches, cuckoo birds and flamingos, they replied.