Wide-eyed Bridget Neal, 4, stared in utter amazement Tuesday as a Madagascar hissing cockroach sounded its alert, warning the girl and other curious preschoolers to stay a safe distance away.
It’s also smart, sitting silent and motionless in the palm of Caldwell Zoo educator Linda Kunze’s hand as a pack of curious preschoolers closed in to inspect its two-toned brown-black body.
“If he was in trouble and another animal thought he was a tasty meal, he would hiss,” Ms. Kunze said. “He’s a big insect, but he’s a lot smaller than we are — I don’t think he will hiss anymore because I’ve picked him up and he’s very comfortable now.”
Children could touch the insect, so long as they were gentle with it.
“Wowwwww,” Bridget whispered, extending a tiny finger to feel the creature’s tough exterior.
This unlikely exchange was one of many experienced in Caldwell Zoo’s Creepy Crawlers Camp, a week-long day school highlighting creatures that slither, slink and scurry.
The session, geared toward children ages 4 and 5, started with a study on worms, followed by lessons on bugs, spiders, bats, slimy things and reptiles.
Other summer camps, some for older youngsters, focus on other aspects of animal behavior, such as making noises and hatching eggs.
“This week we’re talking about animals that some people think are creepy,” Ms. Kunze said. “We’re hoping that by starting when they (children) are little, not only do we give them information, but also an appreciation for wildlife.”
Many animal species are in danger of extinction, but perhaps that trend can be slowed or possibly reversed if future generations are reminded of their importance, zoo officials said.
“Hopefully, if they (children) learn to appreciate them, they will make good decisions,” Ms. Kunze said.
Lessons also included a variety of fun facts: “Did you know every single insect in the world hatches from an egg?” Ms. Kunze said. “And every single insect in the whole, wide world has six legs.”
Bugs also have exoskeletons and some have eyes that see things in multiples, the educator said.
Tuesday’s lesson on creepy, crawly things included a stroll through the zoo to watch the anteater troll for a snack.
“Wow, this is like we’re in a rain forest,” little Sarah Capp, 5, said, gazing at the bamboo.
At the anteater exhibit, an observant Gus Wilson, 5, noticed the animal’s flickering tongue.
“I see it eating,” he gasped.
The day wrapped up with a bug mask craft project and story time with education assistant Jane Post, a student from The University of Texas at Austin, reading Eric Carle’s 1990 favorite, “The Very Quiet Cricket.”
Parents said the zoo camps provide valuable enrichment that can’t be found in a typical classroom setting.
“I wanted him to come because we love the zoo,” Tyler mom Eva Houghton, Tyler, said. “He’s coming to this camp because of the worms … he loves them.”
Her son, Toby, 5, agreed.
“They are really squishy,” he said with a grin.
Tyler mom Laura Neal approves and even encourages her daughter Bridgett’s emerging interest in wildlife. The family purchased her a bug “house” and created a special garden to watch the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to the finished product: a beautiful butterfly.
“I grew up doing a lot of outside things, I had three older brothers,” Mrs. Neal said. “I was looking for something interesting for her to do.”
The efforts appeared successful.
“I like bugs because they are so cool,” Bridget said with a grin.