Wonderland of Lights . . . and Owl Pellets?

Thanksgiving weekend is the opening weekend of Potter Park Zoo’s annual Wonderland of Lights. Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the zoo reopens from 5–8pm and offers a dazzling light show, face painting, cookie decorating, live entertainment, Santa and Mrs. Claus, and animal presentations, which is where I found myself on Saturday evening.

Along with two other docents, I manned a room with tables strewn with artifacts, pelts, and skulls and presented live animals as people walked in to get a break from the cold. I spent most of my night handling our Eurasian eagle owl. Always a crowd pleaser, this owl was the perfect showman on Saturday. He hooted almost constantly to the delight of onlookers. He flapped his wings when I threw him off balance on the glove and people oohed and ahhed appropriately. The faces of the zoo guests were covered in smiles when he looked at them and eyes went wide when I told them interesting facts about owls.

But the very best part came when my feathered companion leaned over toward me, opened his mouth wide, and shook his head back and forth. Though I’d never seen the behavior firsthand, I had an idea of what was coming so I held my arm out to the side so that it wouldn’t involve my pants or shoes. And there, in full view of some very lucky guests, he leaned and shook his head back and forth a few more times and regurgitated a nice fresh owl pellet that landed on the tarp on the floor with an unceremonious plop.

I don’t think I have to tell you that I was just thrilled. To have an animal demonstrate a behavior that you were just talking about is a great teaching moment. I picked up the wad of bones, fur, and bile with a couple paper towels and held it out for the visitors to examine. We could see small bones from the mice he had swallowed earlier but not been able to digest. And I was happy that the people on the other side of the table of pelts and skulls seemed genuinely interested rather than repulsed.

This experience brought to mind another gross-but-interesting docent moment of mine. Last year I was at the Ingham County Youth Center on an outreach and while I was showing and explaining our Chilean rose-haired tarantula it defecated on my hand. Now really, how often do you get pooped on by a large hairy spider? Not often enough. In fact, you may go through your entire life and never have such a thing happen to you. A shame, really. There are a lot of kinda gross things that are actually pretty fascinating and educational if you approach them with an adventurous spirit.

Now, if you’re not thrilled with regurgitation and defecation, be assured that that’s not really what Wonderland of Lights is all about. But on a clear, cold night filled with the wonder of sparkling lights, a little bit of gross can make the night even more memorable—especially for your kids.