The chinchilla was soft and fluffy, but the hedgehog was prickly.

The snake and the lizard were scaly, but they were not slimy.

About 100 local 4-Hers got to meet and touch four small animals Saturday from the Louisville Zoo as a team of three zoo educators visited the Madison County Extension Center.

“It’s important for children to experience the natural world early in life so they overcome their fears and learn respect for all living things,” said Kathleen Johnson, who has been with the zoo’s outreach program for the past 13 years.

In three separate morning sessions, Johnson and docents Kathy Nuss and Joyce Tevis brought the animals around for the children to touch.

“If they can see and touch the animals, children are more likely to ask questions and remember what they have learned,” Johnson said.

After touching an animal, each child’s hands were sprayed with hand cleaner.

“The chinchilla lives high up in the mountains of South America,” Johnson told the children. “It’s cold up there, and he needs his heavy coat to keep warm.”

While the little rodent’s fur feels soft and smooth to human touch, the smooth fur helps the chinchilla slip from the jaws of a predator.

“He can even shed his fur,” Johnson said. “Then the predator gets only a mouth full of fur.”

Not all of the exhibits were alive.

The docents also brought a piece of polar bear hide around for the children to feel.

“The polar bear swims in cold ocean waters,” Johnson said. “Its fur is coarse and oily to help keep the cold water off of this skin. You can see live polar bears if you come to the zoo.”

Johnson wore leather gloves as she carried the African piggy hedgehog around for the children to touch.

“His quills are prickly, but that’s not why I’m wearing gloves,” she said. “The gloves are to protect me from his teeth.”

“Next we’re going to bring out an Australian bearded dragon lizard,” Nuss said. “Do you think he’s going to breathe fire?”

“No,” the children said in a chorus of voices. “Are you sure?” Nuss asked.

The lizard puffs up his sides and his red chin to make predators think he is larger. True to its name, the ball python curled up and hid his head from the curious children.

“Feel the snake’s skin,” Johnson said. “It’s dry.”

The children also got to touch a tiger’s skull and an elephant tusk and see a poster of Scotty, the baby elephant who lives at the zoo. Scotty likes to roll in mud puddles and blow bubbles in the water with his trunk, Nuss said.

The zoo’s outreach program is designed to teach children to grow up to be “good stewards of the Earth so it can be a home for all living things,” Johnson said.

Darst distributed registration forms for the Little Explorers 4-H Club for children ages 4 through 8 that will be organizing soon.

Bill Robinson can be reached at or at 623-1669, Ext. 267.

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