KOKOMO, Ind. — When most people think of an endangered species, they think of animals that live on the other side of the world, like tigers or pandas.
They don’t realize there are animals native to their own back yards – such as the barn owl, freshwater mussel or the Indiana bat — that also are in danger of dying out.
“These animals are often overlooked in favor of more exotic endangered species,” said Tabitha Pelgen, an Indiana University Kokomo senior. “People don’t realize we have endangered species here, and issues with invasive plants that threaten native plants. Restoring our plant life helps restore the overall ecology and biodiversity of an area. Teaching that lesson is important.
Pelgen taught that lesson to 11 area fourth and fifth graders, hosting Persimmon Camp as an honors project for her sustainability class. She was assisted by Marcia Gillette, adjunct lecturer in chemistry, Leda Casey, senior lecturer in geology, and Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology. Children who attended were from KokomoMentum, a science, technology, engineering, and math after school and summer program offered by Kokomo Schools.
The students spent one day on campus, learning about snakes and spiders, planting Indiana native plants in a wetlands restoration site, experiencing a farmer’s market, and building nesting boxes for barn owls. The second day, they traveled to the Limberlost State Historic Site and Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve, to learn about how it was restored to wetlands after being drained for use first as farm land, and then for oil drilling.
“We learned about wetlands, and how farmlands and wetlands go together, and about the animals and native plants that live on the lands, and piecing all that together to see what a sustainable lifestyle looks like in our own state,” Pelgen said.
Cortez McKelvin and A’mondre Lewis were surprised to learn that barn owls are endangered, and enjoyed building nesting boxes for the Department of Natural Resources. The boxes will be placed in barns, and Cortez hoped to see inside one with a nest cam.
A popular feature of the camp was a presentation by Ed “Snakehead Ed” Ferrer, who talked about snakes native to Indiana, and gave students a chance to get to know some snakes and spiders up close and personal. When he brought out his first spider, a tarantula named Lurch, several students giggled nervously and stepped back. One boy nervously agreed to allow Lurch on his outstretched hands, and said the arachnid tickled him when he walked there.
By the end of the show, all of the students had lost their fear, and came forward one by one to touch Melvin, a 30-foot yellow and white Burmese python.
Amirah Marciniak was astonished to learn there aren’t any venomous snakes native to Indiana, and that they have a place in the ecosystem.
“They’re not supposed to harm you,” she said. “They’re supposed to eat things like mice that can harm us, so they protect us.”
The day also included sampling foods that can be grown in Indiana — including the camp’s namesake persimmon, the fruit of the persimmon tree.
“Most of the students didn’t know what a persimmon was,” Pelgen said. “By the end of the camp, they realized it’s something you can grow in your own back yard, and have fresh fruit to put on your table. They learned about chestnuts, walnuts, and berries they can grow, which are underutilized in our diets.
“It all connects,” she said. “How we get our food affects our plants, and our animals, and our lifestyles. It’s important for our young people to realize it, and take action on these issues.”
Pelgen planned the two-day camp, and was able to fund it through grants from IU Kokomo’s Applied and Community Research Center and the Office of Sustainability.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.