Daphne Waskom’s kindergarten class at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School in Seymour soon will be doing a story unit on Jan Brett’s book “The Mitten.” It’s about a boy whose grandmother knitted him a pair of mittens, and when he loses one of the mittens while walking through the woods, several different animals come across it with curiosity and crawl inside.
That prompted Waskom to have Indiana Conservation Officer Phil Nale visit with her class and other kindergartners at the school and talk about his job and his interaction with animals.
He brought mounted taxidermy animals, including a river otter, a great horned owl, an American kestrel and a flicker for the kids to learn about.
“What better way to relate the kids to the animal than to see them in real life,” Waskom said. “A majority of these kids have probably never seen up close the animals that Officer Nale has brought in today.”
Before talking about the animals, Nale shared information about his job. Ensuring people interact with wildlife like they are supposed to, checking to see if people on boats are wearing life jackets and rescuing people from floodwaters are among his responsibilities. He also takes training in wildlife identification, firearms and defensive tactics.
“Our main job as a police officer, we’re here to protect wildlife, but still, we want to protect you guys and your families first,” Nale told the kindergartners. “People are the most important thing to a police officer. Even though I love and protect animals, I’ll never put animals ahead of somebody else. People are still No. 1.”
The first animal Nale talked about was the river otter. Twenty years ago, wildlife officials released river otters in Indiana, including at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge east of Seymour.
“We have so many otters in Indiana that they are almost a problem now,” Nale said, noting that otters enter water and eat everything in sight.
He then showed skin shed from a black rat snake. He said you can tell if a snake is venomous by looking at its belly scales or shape of its head and eyes.
“A lot of people in my family were scared of snakes,” Nale said. “I thought it seemed unreasonable, so I started studying snakes. By the time I was in sixth or seventh grade, I could identify snakes and know by looking at them from a distance whether it was venomous or not.”
Nale also showed pictures of snakes found in Indiana — cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, massasauga rattlesnake and copperhead.
Next, he talked about deer by showing two sets of antlers, including one that was fuzzy.
“That fuzzy part is a warm tissue that lets the antlers grow. They call that velvet,” Nale said. “When a deer’s antlers is velvet, he doesn’t like to rub on trees or get in fights because they’ll break. They are sensitive.”
Antlers grow approximately an inch per day, and the velvet comes off after nine months, Nale said. The antlers typically drop off sometime in the winter.
Nale also had the three mounted birds.
A flicker is a type of woodpecker that picks bugs out of trees.
American kestrels are like owls, hawks, eagles and falcons because they are able to keep their head in the same spot even if their body is moving.
“They do that so they can keep their eye on what they are hunting,” Nale said.
Great horned owls are considered tigers of the sky because they fly through the air at a fast speed to catch prey, Nale said.
“When he flies, his wings are real fluffy, so you can’t hear him flying through the woods at night,” he said. “His wings are designed so he can fly quietly. His eyes are big like that so he can see at night. That’s when he’s going to hunt.”
Nale said he conducts school programs when he is asked. His favorite things to talk about are snakes, firearms safety and arrowheads.
During the warm months, he likes to do programs with live snakes, and Waskom said she would be interested in having Nale do that for her class.