Exotic animals help to teach kids about wildlife conservation

Jacky Wolmarans helps an eager toddler feed Vanilla, the bearded dragon.

HECTORSPRUIT – What does a meerkat named Hooligan, a chinchilla called Dusty, and Vanilla the bearded dragon have in common? They all live at Paws ‘n Crawls Educational Displays on a farm outside town and help to teach children about exotic pets.

Paws ‘n Crawls was founded last year by Jacky Wolmarans and her family, after she realised that she could use the exotic animals she cares for to create awareness for animal conservation. Jacky has a passion for animals and over the years has adopted several that were not cared for properly.

She said a lot of people own exotic pets like snakes, bearded dragons, parrots or marmoset monkeys, but seldom do proper research on what their needs are and how to take care of them. When they realise what a huge responsibility and how time consuming their care is, they want to rehome them.

READ: Children learn about rhino conservation through fun

She has worked as a zookeeper at various zoos in Gauteng and was part of the group providing tours and displays for schools at the zoo. Interacting with the animals up close proved to be of great educational value and people learnt a lot about the animals.

The chance to interact with exotic animals is something few Lowvelders get the chance to do, and Jacky realised that this was a great opportunity to utilise her skills and expertise.

By using the animals in her care as ambassadors for their species, she teaches the public about the animals, their roles in the ecosystem and why they should not be kept as pets.

“My main focus is to educate and inspire people and the best way to do that is to start with the youth. This is why we are currently concentrating on school visits, but would like to expand in the future,” she stated.

Jacky, her dad, Louis Snr and brother, Louis, designed the enclosures and started building them in April last year, improving and expanding as they went along. Once the animals were settled, at the beginning of the year, they started contacting schools to see if they were interested in a visit.

Jacky Wolmarans shows a group of toddlers what a turtle looks like up close.

Jacky’s mom, Lesley, helps with all of the paperwork and feeding of animals, while Jacky contacts schools to book visits, feeds the animals, cleans the enclosures and trains the animals to get used to being handled, touched and comfortable in their travel boxes. Her sister, Demi Marincowitz, helps to look after the animals during the presentations.

Jacky hopes to employ an assistant who can speak siSwati and isiZulu, to enable them to reach rural schools as well.

Their first visit was to Kwetternes Kleuterskool in Komatipoort at the end of May. At first, the children were a bit hesitant to touch the animals, especially the reptiles. This changed after Vanilla, the bearded dragon, ate a worm off a learner’s hand.

Hooligan the meerkat, in Jacky Wolmarans’ arms, is gently petted by a youngster during one of Paws ‘n Crawls educational talks.

Even the teachers loved the experience and also wanted to touch the exotic animals.

Jacky says she receives a lot of orphaned and injured wildlife and does not intentionally keep them for use in the school visits. She believes they belong in the wild and will try to do so or send them to the correct rehabilitation centre.

“I work a lot with Dullstroom Bird of Prey Centre and DIY Africa to make sure they get the proper care needed. I take in animals that were not properly cared for or taken out of the wild and were kept as pets that won’t be able to be released back,” she explained.

For more information on Paws ‘n Crawls, contact Jacky on 072-420-5800 or send an email to [email protected].

Retha Nel

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