Phil Castle, The Business Times
Janet Gardner traces her natural curiosity to a childhood growing up in the Grand Valley and time spent outdoors camping, hiking and exploring. “I was always the kid who was flipping over the rocks to see what was there.”
Further inspired by the National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau specials she watched on television along with weekly episodes of “Wild Kingdom,” Gardner went on to study biology and psychology in college and realized a childhood goal when she conducted field research on Komodo dragons in Indonesia.
Now that she serves as executive director of the Children’s Nature Center in Grand Junction, Gardner has come full circle, except with a slightly different aspiration. She wants to foster in children who visit the center the same kind of curiosity she experienced.
With nearly 30 exhibits and more than 150 animals, there’s a lot for children as well as others to see and do at the center. The larger quarters and more convenient location in the Mesa Mall improve the experience, Gardner says. “We’re so gratified to be here.”
The Children’s Nature Center is open in its new location near Sears in the mall, 2424 U.S. Highway 6 & 50. At 8,200 square feet, the space in the mall is three times larger than what the center occupied in Fruita for more two years, Gardner says. That provides more room for exhibits and activities as well as a gift shop.
Leading an impromptu tour of the new location, Gardner’s first stop is a large exhibit housing a pig-nosed turtle, a species indigenous to Australia and New Guinea with flippers and nostrils at the end of the fleshy snout that gives them their name. Gardener slides open two glass panels and splashes the water, a signal for the turtle to swim closer. The turtle enjoys the attention, she says, and isn’t the least bit shy when it comes to posing for photographs with passersby.
Nearby exhibits house equally exotic creatures, including a legless lizard, green tree python and group of dart frogs.
A 1,000-gallon saltwater tank provides a home to equally colorful inhabitants, among them butterfly fish, yellow tangs and stringrays.
A freshwater tank showcases archer fish, a species of fish from Australia and Asia that’s learned to hunt prey by squirting a stream of water at insects and other small animals to knock them off overhanging branches. Gardner holds a cricket over the tank to demonstrate the behavior.
At the back of the center, exhibits house two pythons, each more than 15 feet long, as well as a large iguana.
Depending on the willingness of the individual animals on a given day, volunteers who work at the center can remove the creatures from their habitats to offer more up close and personal encounters. A small saltwater tank offers an opportunity to reach in and touch marine creatures, including starfish and urchins. Still other inhabitants of the center roam about, in particular an African spurred tortoise named Bruce.
While some of the animals at the center were acquired from zoos and government agencies, many others constitute what Gardner describes as rescue animals that now receive proper care.
The Children’s Nature Center is the only facility of its kind between Denver and Salt Lake City and, consequently, draws visitors from a large geographic region, Gardner says. While exotic animals in natural habitats are an attraction, so are the things visitors learn, she says. “People come here because they know they’ll get a great educational experience.”
The center hosts field trips for students in kindergarten through college and also offers age-appropriate programs that align with educational standards. Curious students with questions get answers, Gardner says. “As much as you want to learn, we’ll tell you.”
The fact students can see the animals with their own eyes and in some cases interact with them, makes a difference, Gardner says. “It makes it real for them.”
While the center offers an educational experience, there’s also fun to be had — especially for younger visitors — Gardner says. The center hosts birthday parties.
The new location in the mall is a good one, she says, in not only providing more space and ample parking, but also serving as an additional destination for center visitors whether they’re from out of town and want to make a day of it or they’re parents dropping off children and want to shop on their own for a bit. “Everybody comes to the mall. It’s just a community place.”
Paul Peterson, general manager of the Mesa Mall, expects the Children’s Nature Center in turn to bring more people to the mall. “This unique addition will enhance our offerings and furthers Mesa Mall as the area’s leading place to shop, dine and spend time together,” Peterson states in a news release.
While education, conservation, research and entertainment rank among the top priorities, Gardner hopes the center also provides inspiration — the kind that sparks the imaginations of children, the kind that leads to life-long pursuits driven by their curiosity.
The Children’s Learning Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit www.childrensnaturecenter.org.