News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 5, 2013

Having wild fun: Safari program shows students nature up close

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — “Nature isn’t always pretty, sister!”

As students at West Vigo Middle School learned on Tuesday, sometimes the predator becomes the prey. Like when the young alligator — who likes to eat bugs and other aquatic life — gets eaten by an eagle.

Amazon John Cusson gave the nature warning as he presented his Silly Safaris program to coincide with the school’s science curriculum and the school library’s research contest on science topics.

“Nature is not out to get you,” Amazon John told the youths as he shared some of the “gross” details about the habits of vultures, who don’t eat every day, but enjoy an occasional roadside lunch.

A yellow-headed vulture named Mozart — a “decomposer” named after a composer — gobbled a small dead mouse from the unflinching hand of a student named Megan.

The animal man explained to the students that Mozart has a big nose to smell the wafting aroma of dead carcass. The odor is carried upward with the hot air currents — the same currents that give lift for Mozart and his fellow scavengers to float high in the sky. The buzzards will then zero in on a meal.

The buzzard sat placidly on the gloved hand of Amazon John, who explained that bigger buzzards depend upon the keen scent of the small buzzards like Mozart to find a food source. But once Mozart lands and sticks his head inside the animal for a helping of internal organ, the bigger birds usually fly in to take over the carcass, leaving the smaller birds still hungry, and once again on the search for food, repeating the cycle.

“That’s interdependency,” Amazon John said.

A slimy toad and a green frog also appeared, along with some Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The world needs bugs as a food source for many animals, Amazon John said.

The students also saw a three-banded armadillo — a native of South America — which feels for grubs and insects through his hairy underbelly. And since he has no teeth, the flexible and shy creature must eat soft foods.

Eighth-grader Krislyn Brown held out her arm to become a tree for a soft and furry kinkajou — a nocturnal native of rainforests. With his long prehensile tail and his honeybear nickname, the kinkajou loves fruit and makes its bed out of big banana leaves, sleeping in the treetops.

Preschoolers from the Vikes and Tykes Daycare also got to see a presentation, with a blue-tongued skink displayed as a modern day dinosaur. And a friendly visit from Ellie the Great Dane drew some comparisons to a elephant, who is also gray and large and has big floppy ears.

Amazon John, who started Silly Safaris in 1997, presented the educational program for all middle schoolers, with a lot of humor and some interesting animal facts

For the preschoolers, however, he said it was enough to teach the youngsters that mammals have fur and reptiles have scales. He noted that some of the youngsters were less afraid of the animals than their adult chaperones, and that is natural, because fear is a learned behavior.

Amazon John said he has found that he doesn’t need big and dangerous animals to present the conservation message to children. A friendly bunny and a turtle are included in the safari. Teaching conservation education through the animal shows is a way to get young people connected with their environment and more in tune with how their actions affect the world of animals.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.