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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Jackson shows off 'Spike,' a twenty-five year old alligator during SeaWorld San Diego's "SeaWorld Cares” program at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Valley City Wednesday April 17, 2013. The SeaWorld Cares educational outreach program teaches kids about ocean conservation, animal rescue and rehabilitation, and how people’s everyday actions can make safer habitats for animals.
Gator snatches West Valley City kids — by their hearts and minds
Education » SeaWorld helps elementary students sink their teeth into wildlife protection.
First Published May 02 2013 02:56 pm • Last Updated May 07 2013 03:28 pm

West Valley City • A gray whale eats 900 pounds of food in a single day, peregrine falcons outpace sports cars and a live alligator can render speechless 200 third- and fourth-graders.

Those are just a few of many takeaways from a 40-minute assembly at Hillsdale Elementary School on a recent Wednesday afternoon, when "SeaWorld came to us," as principal Marla Wharton told her rapt students. An educational outreach arm of SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Cares aims to inspire young Americans — even those living hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline — to act as responsible stewards of the global wildlife habitat.

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Elevation gain671 feet


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Selling that pitch in Hillsdale’s gym were SeaWorld’s land ambassadors: a peregrine falcon, a black-and-white ruffed lemur and Spike, the American alligator.

First came the stately peregrine falcon, its eyes darting around the room as a handler paraded it between rows of gawking children. When SeaWorld educator Marcy McClure asked students how fast they thought the falcon could dive toward prey, a young avian expert shouted "240 miles per hour!"

"It’s faster than a cheetah," marveled fourth-grader Paiton Gentry, 10, who wants to work with animals when she’s older.

Students learned that DDT poisoned the falcons’ food chain and led to their extinction east of the Mississippi, but that dedicated breeding and rehabilitation efforts have helped the world’s fastest animal thrive again.

From the skies students traveled to the treetops when a lemur from Madagascar showed off its elegant feather-duster tail and even struck a glamorous pose for TV, grasping dramatically at a camera lens. It’s humanizing moments like that, said SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Maria Valdes, that capture kids’ attention.

"They think that’s really cool, but at the same time they’re learning about the habitat, they’re learning about what their threats are, who their predators are — so that is a really fun way of learning about animals, and if they learn about animals, they’ll take care of them," she said. In the case of the quadrupedal lemurs, logging and agriculture have destroyed the tree dwellers’ natural ecosystem.

Of course, those were just the opening acts. With minimal setup and no introduction necessary, animal trainer David Jackson brought out Spike, easily handling the 25-year-old alligator the way you might carry a bag of rock salt. Jackson feigned a trip and made nearby students start toward the exits, but then an impish Spike "waved" and flashed his pearly whites — alligators have between 72 and 80 of them — as students were told that the freshwater predator needs protection from hunters and habitat destruction.

"The alligator has a lot of teeth," said third-grader Aubrey Wilkin, 8, who pledged to do her part to protect wildlife. "I think when I see an animal — on the beach or wherever I am — I’ll call [authorities]."

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Valdes says animals like Spike are accustomed to large audiences and help SeaWorld instill a love for wildlife in areas, such as West Valley City, where they can’t bring a dolphin.

"We would love to, it’s just too far away," she said. "But we have these animal ambassadors that are land animals that are used to doing assemblies; they’re a lot of fun, and the kids love them, too." And the SeaWorld Cares educators know the first rule of wildlife education, as well as marshland survival: Just get out of the alligator’s way.

"I don’t know if they’re told that we’re bringing animals," she said. "They’re just told that SeaWorld’s coming, so when we mention ‘Oh you’re going to meet some animals,’ their eyes just go ‘What?’ "

Visual props also helped educators bring the dangers and the scale of the nautical world to students, who gasped when shown a tire-size nest of discarded pink fishing line that was found tangled, lures and all, around a whale’s tail.

Kids watched a video about J.J., a gray whale SeaWorld found dehydrated and almost comatose at 14 feet long and 1,500 pounds in 1997. The staff nursed their famous patient back to health and taught her the vocalizations she would need to migrate with her Pacific companions, and then in March 1998 released her at 31 feet long, 17,000 pounds — she’d gained up to 2 pounds an hour at one point. Educators inflated a life-size model of J.J. that stretched two-thirds the width of the gym floor, a demonstration that resonated with third-grader Daniel Rupp, 9.

"They had to do many things, and finally it was able to go back to its home," he said. "I’m glad that we have SeaWorld and other zoos that help save animals in danger, so we can have fun animals in our lives."

Hillsdale, a Title 1 school at which 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, is the type of at-risk school SeaWorld tries to visit, bringing animals to kids who might not otherwise see them. The limited exposure seemed to resonate with most students, who said they took to heart the message of conservation and respect for wildlife. A thoughtful Daniel was among those who realized his actions amount to more than a drop in the ocean.

"I’m going to recycle more and when I see trash, even if I don’t want to pick it up, I’d better or then animals who go and find it and eat it will get sick or die," the 9-year-old said.

It wasn’t all life and death: Students also received a brief lesson in the fine points of animal etiquette after the excited bunch bid Spike a hearty "Bye!"

"No, no, no," chided a disapproving Jackson. "How do you say goodbye to an alligator?"

"See you later, alligator!"

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