This past week I was invited to volunteer with the FWC in the "Big Red Barn" during the state fair. I had no idea what to expect as I had only been to the fair once - years ago and it was a weekend evening thing. My last experience obviously was not a positive one as I had not returned.
I was scheduled for Monday at 10-2m on Senior Day. I arrived and parked at Gate 2 and was soon being briefed on the display by staff that were veterans of the fair. They had wonderful displays of native and non-native fish and plants, a couple hands on displays for the kids and one sweet powerboat! There were video to be run on various displays and 2 FWC officers on hand for questions from the public. Even a FWC Marine Biologist that was a joy to converse with! But what most person would be wanting to see was the "Sissy" the Florida Black Bear, "Maxine" the Florida Panther and "Big T" the Alligator Snapping Turtle.
I was given information on each of these beautiful creatures so I could properly answer a ton of questions that would surely follow. They are each on loan to the FWC solely for the duration of the fair. Neither Sissy or Maxine are candidates for release being raised their entire lives in captivity. They will not be bred, they do not stay in the cages at the fair (they have permanent homes in Seminole at a wildlife rescue facility). It did not seem to bother the critters that they were there as most of the time they were asleep, except when their handlers came in to feed them and clean up their areas.
Now some would say this is horrible, keeping these animals in these cages, I have to share another view.
As the crowds started coming in they started sharing stories, some of their first and usually only sighting of a bear or cougar in the wild, one fella saw one many years ago right out where Lake Keystone Estates now is located. Others dream of the opportunity to see one in the wild. Many were not even able to identify the panther referring to it as a bobcat! We heard stories of animals getting into trash and of wild coyotes and bobcats eating chickens, one lady wanted to shoot a fox ( protected in the state of Florida) for getting her free range chickens at her property that backs onto conservation lands. Everyone of these conversations were an opportunity to educate. Some did not like our answers, others we directed to organizations that may be able to assist them with their situations. Still others asked about fishing licenses, raising tilapia and the question of the day...."what do you know about distressed elephants?"
I must have talked to a couple hundred persons as I ended up staying till the fair closed volunteering - I really had a wonderful time! During a break for lunch I walked around Cracker Country and the Forestry Building where I found a wonderful display by the Florida Cattleman's Assoc. When time was slow I picked the brains of the FWC officers and biologist that were volunteering with me.
I learned a lot at the fair that day. The most important lesson was that most of the persons I spoke with were so unconnected to nature. We need the state fair and displays as such to try in even just this little way to spark an interest in reconnecting, to learning about all the wild things we are losing and to make sure these resources are protected for our children and grandchildren. I say the FWC is doing a great service in being at the fair and I encourage you to take the time to stop by the Big Red Barn and see what you can learn and what you can do to make our part of Florida just a little more special for those that will come behind us. I will return to the state fair, I no longer have a negative view of unsupervised youth running around after dark, doing who knows what at the fair. I have seen things from a fresh prospective. Look for me there next year as I am now eager to volunteer again!
The FWC oftentimes needs volunteers for activities at the fairgrounds and they are currently looking for persons during the upcoming boat show. If you are interested in volunteering for the boat show please contact Gina Russo at gina.russo@MyFWC.com or for other volunteer opportunities visit http://myfwc.com/get-involved/volunteer/