When we finally left Florida last Saturday our next destination was Atlanta, a 300 mile drive. In order to break up the drive without spending a lot of time (or money) finding a place to stay for the night, we just parked our traveling home in a rest area for the night. The rest area we stopped at for a picnic dinner was quiet and clean, and would have been a relatively pleasant place to stop over, but we wanted to make more miles that first evening. Unfortunately the next rest area was closer to the highway and busier, with accompanying noise and exhaust fumes. We slept there, but planned to leave first thing in the morning to find a nice location for breakfast and a walk.
After some research, I came across a place that would only add a few minutes to our drive, offered free parking, and more miles of hiking/mountain biking trails than we could cover that morning. So we headed off to Dauset Trails Nature Center.
Since it was Sunday, the main gate was locked and we parked in the nearby trailhead parking lot. After breakfast, we walked through the woods a few miles, attempting to reach nearby Indian Springs. We turned back a couple miles short of the springs because we needed to get back to the van and continue to Atlanta where we had dinner plans with a friend of John’s. John does not like to be late, or in a hurry, but I still managed to convince him to let me check out the nature center once we got back near the trailhead, even though we were cutting it close to the time we were supposed to leave.
The website for the center states that their mission is “to provide quality environmental, education, outdoor recreation, and an understanding of early farm life through close and intimate contact with Georgia’s preserved flora and fauna”. To be honest, I only really read the beginning part of that mission statement, and the section on the site about the hiking trails. I expected this place to be a small museum/education center. So I was surprised when we came across the livestock pens: goats, including one with such a large neck that we didn’t immediately recognize it as a goat, pigs, chickens and roosters. And the surprises just kept coming.
We made our way to the visitors center, a one-room museum and gift shop akin to what I had envisioned. While reading through available pamphlets for more information about the place, I saw a map of the “animal trail” behind the building, dotted with icons of animals including a large cat and a bear. I thought “they can’t possibly have those animals, this must be a trail of educational displays”, but my curiosity was aroused. I insisted that we walk the animal trail and John obliged. First we hit the reptile room. The first sight when we opened the door was a slider turtle on the back of an alligator. It was such a bizarre sight that I wasn’t convinced they were real, until the second alligator moved its head to rest it on the turtle’s back. This spectacle was the only sight that we took the time to stop and photograph that day.
From the reptile house, we walked over a bridge crossing a lake filled with slider turtles and fish waiting below for food from a coin-operated dispenser. Then we came to the first cage – a hawk in a round enclosure about 6 feet in diameter and 9 feet tall. This place really does have the animals shown on the map! We saw several birds of prey, including a bald eagle, coyotes, fox, bobcats, even a Florida panther. It was amazing to be in such close proximity to these elusive creatures, but also heartbreaking to see them contained in such small cages. It reminded me of pictures I have seen of 19th century zoos, when animals were displayed for entertainment with no consideration for their health and well-being. This may be a harsh comparison – each cage did have some element of habitat, a tiny den for the fox or a small stretch of running water for the river otter – but it was nothing like the large and more natural habitats I have seen in zoos.
I left the place feeling unsettled by what I saw there, so I did a little internet research. I learned that Dauset Trails Nature Center started out as a wildlife rehabilitation center; the animals they have on display had been injured or orphaned and could not be released back into the wild. This information mitigates the sorrow for the animals that I felt when leaving the center, but has led me to contemplate the role of displaying confined wild animals in conservation education and outreach. My research also led to some disturbing reading on the plight of many captive animals around the world, giving a different perspective on the enclosures (not as natural as large zoos provide, but better than many).
At the very least, I think this nature center should provide more information on the animals displayed, where the visitors are paying attention. Each pen had a little plaque with tidbits about the animal’s habitat and lifestyle; this opportunity to see a wild animal up close and learn a little about it may lead to a visitor feeling more connected and sympathetic to the species, but with no actionable information. Knowing what malady led to a particular animal landing in the cage – was it injured by a car? orphaned because its mother was killed by hunter? – and which are the primary factors endangering the species – habitat loss due to development, poisoning from contaminated water sources, lack of adequate food availability, hunting, etc – would enable the visitors to understand how their actions and lifestyle effect wildlife. The proclaimed mission of the center is to provide “quality environmental education”, but they are missing an opportunity to empower the visitors they attract with the information about how each person effects the environment, and what they can do to help preserve the local ecosystem and the species on display.