Claws-on Learning

State Park program promotes quality time with wild animals

Chimney Rock Park Senior Naturalist Emily Walker and nine-year-old red-tailed hawk named Ghost (unreleasable because of a frozen wing).
Photo by Rachel Pressley

During the last week of December, Chimney Rock Park will host “Winter Break Family Animal Encounters,” which are guided opportunities to meet the state park’s resident creatures. To find out more, Bold Life spoke to Senior Naturalist Emily Walker, who directs educational programs.

What are Animal Ambassadors?

We call our animals we use for education our “ambassadors” because they are non-releasable into the wild due to injury, or if they used to be a pet. It doesn’t make any of us happy they can’t be in the wild, but they play a big role in conservation: They get to educate tens of thousands of people about the importance of wildlife.

Screech owl “Cloppy”
Photo by Rachel Pressley

It’s billed as a family event — does that mean it’s only for kids?

I think everybody can find something of interest. Teaching helps build a bridge [for people to] become excited about wildlife, and about what makes North Carolina and our park such a special place. It’s a very informal program, like the others we do all year round. The presentation lasts about 30 minutes, with lots of time for questions and answers. 

What kinds of wildlife will visitors encounter?

Reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and raptors. We have a great horned owl, a screech owl, and a red-tailed hawk. Kids are fascinated with the frogs, toads, and salamanders. We have an Eastern box turtle and a common snapping turtle, and our opossum is popular. Some people think they’re related to rats, but they are actually related to kangaroos and they are very beneficial. 

“Solo” the opossum was the sole survivor of a dog attack.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Beneficial how?

For one thing, they eat ticks, which are such a problem in our region. An opossum will eat thousands of ticks in a season. They also eat venomous snakes.

Where do you find these animals? 

They come from all over, through a professional network of rehabilitation centers, fully documented through veterinarians. We don’t do rehab here, but are happy to put people in touch with those who do. There’s a great network locally, with many resources in Asheville like Appalachian Wildlife Refuge.

A juvenile black rat snake named Jake.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

How do you keep the animals excited about life?

Our naturalists on staff work hard to add enrichment to all their environments, to make them use their brains and stay active and inquisitive in captivity.

How is that done?

It may be a change in their environment, like a new scent or obstacle. Sometimes you’ll see objects that may look strange in their environment, like a giant cardboard box. Those were put there to enhance the life of the animals, to add curiosity and change their normal climbing environment.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Chimney Rock Park, 431 Main St., Chimney Rock/Lake Lure. The Winter Break Family Animal Encounters event runs Saturday, Dec. 26 through Thursday, Dec. 31, daily at 2pm. Cost is included with one-day admission to the park: $17/adults, $8/youth ages 5-15/free for kids 4 and under. Annual passes are available for $32/adults, $14/youth. For more information, call 828-625-9611 or see 

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