Summer Critters & Local Resources Support Learning and a Sense of Place

Support an Interest in Zoology While Strengthening a Sense of Place with Community-Based Resources

The summer months are ripe with community-based education opportunities that can support an interest in biology, zoology, and ecology. Whether it’s catching tadpoles at the local pond or fireflies in a nearby meadow at night, the warmer months offer seasonal opportunities to experience local species and the different ecosystems in which they live.

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Taxonomy, the scientific grouping of biological organisms, is complex. Classes of animal species often encompass their own branch of biology. Kids who collect bugs are budding entomologists, while bird watchers are junior ornithologists. And the great thing about animal studies is that it also strengthens a sense of place, connecting us with animals and habitat that surround us every day.

In addition to self-directed nature-based learning opportunities, Western MA is rich in community-based resources that can support learning about native animals, insects, and other living creatures any time of the year. Visiting natural history museums, volunteering at animal shelters, stopping by a local farm, and seeking out experiences in community spaces can open us a world of learning.

Here are a few community-based resources to support interest and education in zoology, biology, and ecology: 

Natural History Museums

At the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, their Berkshire Backyard exhibit, and Aquarium support an interest in local flora and fauna and environmental science through taxidermy displays and programs that teach about the native wildlife and local ecosystems. Self-directed learners can compare and contrast the necessary habitat for different bird species, and how to identify native mammals and insects through their adaptations, tracks, and vocalizations. And programs like Chow Time in the aquarium (Saturdays at 12:30pm) and WeeMuse Adventures (Fridays at 11am) help facilitate learning in through 35+ tanks in their aquarium. For more information, call 413-443-7171.

In Franklin County at the Great Falls Discovery Museum in Turners Falls, MA, dioramas showcase animals and ecosystems from the Connecticut River watershed. According to their website, “…walk-through dioramas show the plants, animals, and landscapes of this 410-mile-long river from its arboreal source near the Canadian border, through forests and farms, past villages, towns, and cities, all the way down to the estuary at the Long Island Sound. A timeline indicates the impacts of human habitation on each environment over time and suggests safeguards to keep the watershed healthy and useful for all—people, plants, and animals—that live here together.” This museum is a Massachusetts State Park operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and is open to the public. With free admission, families can support an interest in biology, zoology, and ecology not only through their dioramas, but also events, like their monthly Kidleidoscope Story Hour, and resources, including downloadable activity sheets like Habitat Hunt Animals. For more information, call 413-863-3221.

Like the Berkshire Museum, the Springfield Museums’ Solutia Live Animal Center, is another resource where visitors can see examples of living creatures in their natural ecosystems such as a coral reef, a rainforest, a mangrove, and the New England coast. There are also a few “unique” creatures you might find at the center, like fish that walk on land, turtles whose morphology make them resemble leaves, and poisonous amphibians. Additionally, the museums’ Phelon African Hall includes taxidermy specimens of all sorts of African creatures, including everything from an elephant to a warthog. While taxidermy examples don’t teach children about animal behavior through living example, they do stay still – meaning children can easily observe the fine detail of each of the animals’ bodies and the interpretations of their life and habitat. More tactile experiences in the hall include recorded call of birds and other animals, and samples of various animal hide and tracks visitors are welcome to touch. For more information, call 413-263-6800.

Other community-based resources include:

  • Living history museums, like Old Sturbridge Village and Hancock Shaker Village, support integration of animal studies with local history.
  • Magic Wings in South Deerfield is an 8,000-square foot butterfly conservatory, home to nearly 4,000 free-flying butterflies from all over the world.
  • Lupa Zoo in Ludlow is a conservation and education institution demonstrating. Pony rides, bears, giraffes, and zebras are just a few of the attractions at Lupa Zoo.
  • Christenson Zoo at Look Park in Florence.
  • Zoo in Forest Park in Springfield.

Animal Shelters & Rehabilitation Centers

Supporting local animal shelters and rehabilitation centers is a way for families to combine an interest in animal studies with service-based learning and community engagement.

The Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society welcomes volunteers who are 16 and older to help out with the many animals who find themselves at the shelter. Opportunities might include hand-feeding kittens in their nursery, exercise and train dogs, provide foster homes, deliver pet food, act as a Pet Taxi. According to their website, “The first step to most volunteer positions with Dakin Humane Society is a New Volunteer Orientation. These gatherings take place in both our Springfield and Leverett adoption centers. You’ll learn more about Dakin, how you can get involved, and the types of training that are available for different positions. You may attend a session in either location, regardless of where you plan to volunteer. Find out about upcoming sessions here.” For more information about the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, call 413-781-4000 x111.

If you live in Berkshire County, the Berkshire Humane Society in Pittsfield has opportunities too, including their Humane Education Program. For more information on this program, call 413-447-7878 x129 and check out this promo video:

Similarly, the efforts of Urban Wildlife Rehabilitation – an organization caring for wild creatures in the Springfield area – can be supported through supply and funding donations, presenting a excellent opportunity for wildlife-loving children to support the creatures they love so much. UWR is committed to addressing common misconceptions about wild animals and how to resolve issues with our non-human neighbors through educational outreach programs at local schools and universities. For more information, call 413-781-6746.

Other wildlife rehabilitation efforts in Western MA worth contacting to see if they are in need of volunteers include Bluebird Farm Animal Sanctuary (Cheshire, MA), Cummington Wildlife (Cummington, MA), and PawPrints Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (Williamsburg, MA).

Western MA Farms

The most place-based of domesticated animal-learning resources in Western MA is, of course, our local farms, many of which allow visitors to meet the animals farmers raise and rely upon both for food and for farm tasks. There are many different farm animals raised in the region, and each farm has a different animal-related story and history to tell. A dairy farm can teach families about raising cows for milk and how milk was once stored, while a fiber farm’s focus may be on how to raise a healthy family of sheep and rabbits that generate the best fiber. In addition to learning about the role of animals in farming, a farm visit can teach us that not all fascinating animals are exotic – there are plenty of species found close to home that are every bit as fascinating as those found across an ocean.

Using CISA’s Fun on the Farm petting zoo finder, families can find farms near them that allow visitors to meet farm animals when they visit. The area’s upcoming agricultural fair season also offers lots of opportunities to visit and learn about livestock, as each fairground’s barns will be filled with every species of cow, goat, sheep, and chicken imaginable.

Community Spaces

If your library offers a Reading with Dogs program, your child’s interest in dogs can open up a world of literacy and love for reading. It could also spark an interest in fostering a service dog or adopting a black cat.

Harness your child’s interest in animals and use it to connect them with other learning opportunities and potential interests!

  • Take advantage of things like the beautiful fish aquarium at Teapot Restaurant in downtown Northampton. Your child’s fascination with the aquarium might be a gateway for them to discover a love of Chinese or Japanese foods, broadening their awareness of other cultures and culinary art.
  • Aquatic gardens are often home to carp, frogs, and turtles, possibly sparking an additional interest in botany and ecosystems. Look for large ponds, like the one at Smith College in Northampton, MA, or tiny container gardens, like the one at Bread Euphoria in Haydenville, MA.
  • Picking up cat food at the pet store, like Dave’s Soda and Pet Store, can expose your child to other animals that are part of their inventory, including lizards, hamsters, canaries, and even tarantulas!
  • Does your family (or extended family) already care for a dog (or two)? Citizen science comes into play in dog ownership in the form of leading through example. Citizen Canine, a Canadian organization committed to creating a culture of responsible dog ownership, offers tips for creating Canine Community amongst dogs and their caretakers. Rather than collecting data and contributing to ongoing research, this citizen science opportunity is more psychology-based and asks participants to work to make a positive impact on their community by demonstrating and spreading the word about the behaviors that are part of responsible dog ownership. In doing so, dog owners will, the organization hopes, make a positive impact on their communities.

Think outside the box and allow the presence of animals in our community lead the way in making connections to other interests too! These community-based resources don’t need to be extravagant to grab the attention of children to plant seeds through engagement and learning.

Check our list of Weekly Suggested Events each week for events that support a love of animals and opportunities to learn through community engagement! Be sure to subscribe to our free eNewsletter for a heads-up on opportunities around the region!

[Photo credits: (c) Sienna Wildfield)

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