Educator offers hands-on animal experience
May 17, 2011
Gardnerville resident Julie Allen calls them her “little ambassadors.”
“They bring a new outlook, a healthy outlook,” she said. “People live so close to nature here, but, at the same time, there are a lot of animals they are not familiar with.”
Allen’s little ambassadors include more than two dozen scaly, spiny, feathery, shell-covered creatures. Her business, Julie & Critters, offers hands-on wildlife and environmental education to schools, day care centers and private parties.
And “hands-on” is no figure of speech. Literally, Allen’s motto is “Let the animals touch you.”
“It’s one thing to listen and learn something,” she said. “It’s another thing to see it and touch it. I offer a full sensory learning experience.”
Allen, 52, has been in education for more than three decades. She has a bachelor’s degree in natural resources and environmental studies and a master’s degree in education. She first started her career in Minnesota as an animal health technician, a wildlife rehabilitator, zoo educator, interpretive naturalist and co-host of a monthly series on cable television.
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In 1995, she started Nature’s Critters, which would develop into the business model she still uses today. In 2000, Allen relocated to Sacramento, and she wasn’t alone.
“We had about 150 animals. Most were unwanted pets, or rescue animals,” she said. “We’ve visited probably over 1,000 schools in Minnesota and California.”
Five years ago, Allen married Michael McCormick, assistant district attorney for Douglas County. Last year, after months of a trans-mountain relationship, Allen finally moved over the hill.
“I love the area, it’s so beautiful,” she said. “In Sacramento, I would always look at the mountains. Now, I live right at the base.”
Allen said one of her employees has taken the helm of Nature’s Critters in Sacramento, while she brought 25 of her favorite friends over the mountains with her to form the new business.
“I’m happiest if I’m working,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t get to spend enough time with them.”
In the “critter room” of her Gardnerville home, Allen held up a death head cockroach from South America.
“They have wings, but they don’t fly,” she said. “And they don’t bite.”
Then it was a Madagascan hissing cockroach, hissing fiercely from beneath its false, predator-deterring head.
“The real head’s beneath,” Allen said, holding up the mask-like false front.
African white-bellied hedgehogs, an Indian leopard gecko, a Meyer’s parrot and beautiful macaw were all part of the menagerie.
Leonardo, a North American box turtle more than 50 years old, poked her head out of her shell only to retract seconds later at the sight of a stranger.
“We’ve had her for 30 years,” Allen said. “We found her walking the streets of Minnesota. She either escaped or was let go because they are not native to Minnesota.”
And of course Allen had snakes: a North American hog-nosed snake, an African ball python, and Cornelius, a red rat snake, also known as a corn snake.
“Cornelius is 20 years old,” she said. “We’ve had him since he hatched out of an egg. He’s probably been hugged by 100,000 kids over his lifetime.”
When it comes to animals, especially snakes and bugs, Allen said her mission is to change people’s peevish perceptions.
“It requires reprogramming the brain,” she said. “When you touch something you’re afraid of, and your worst fear is not realized, then you change a super negative perception into a positive one.”
To illustrate the importance of each creature in the cycle of life, Allen gave the example of bugs that are pollinators and decomposers.
“We’d be nowhere without them,” she said. “We wouldn’t have gardens without bugs.”
She knows she’s made a difference when she sees a child refraining from killing a spider.
“When I leave a school, if nothing else, I want the students to have a better understanding of life,” she said, “a deeper appreciation for it.”
Allen is participating in two free events with the Douglas County Public Library. Her interactive show, Animals from around the World, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 11 at Minden Park. Another show is slated for 1:30 p.m. July 15 at the Zephyr Cove library, 233 Warrior Way.
For more information, contact Allen at (775) 901-2132 or visit http://www.julieandcritters.com.