Everybody loves the sloth.
Flash, as the sloth is named, is a smooth brown color with a sweet little face. And as Del Niedzialek brings the sloth out for the crowd of children and parents, Flash clings to a blue and white stuffed bunny.
What’s not to love?
But when asked about his favorite animals featured in a wildlife exhibit at Wiregrass Commons Mall in Dothan, Niedzialek leans more toward the less cuddly critters – tarantula, rat or ball python. Those animals, he said, are the ones people have the most misconceptions about but that are just as important to ecosystems.
The Little Ray’s Animal Exhibit presented by the Foundation for Animal Rescue and Education (FARE) opened in Dothan on Friday and continues Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
One of Niedzialek’s goals is to have people leave the exhibit with a new respect for animals they might otherwise fear.
“There are lots of animals that people don’t appreciate as much as they should or have fears about them that they shouldn’t,” said Niedzialek, the executive director of FARE. “They come in loving the sloth; they leave loving the sloth … that doesn’t have the educational impact as getting to see animals that they have misconceptions and fears about.”
The exhibit features reptiles, rabbits, ferrets, rats, birds, tortoises and snakes along with the sloth, a Brazilian armadillo, a tarantula and an opossum named Daisy.
The animals come from Little Ray’s Nature Centers, which have operated in Canada for 25 years. The nonprofit FARE actually puts on the animal exhibits. Many of the animals used in the exhibit were rescued, abandoned or confiscated – some had been kept as exotic pets.
Along with the animal exhibits, shows are held every 45 minutes starting at 10:15 a.m. with one show on reptiles and invertebrates followed by a second show on mammals and birds. The last show, which will be on reptiles and invertebrates, starts at 4:15 p.m.
Niedzialek said FARE travels all around Canada and the United States with the exhibit and specifically targets smaller communities like Dothan that may not have opportunities to learn about and get close to wild animals.
Eleven-year-old Rayne Clark and 10-year-old Jorgia Armstrong were making the rounds through the exhibit Friday. Jorgia liked the rabbits; Rayne preferred the ferrets.
“They’re soft and really cute,” Rayne said.
The girls looked hesitant as they approached a volunteer holding a non-venomous rat snake, but they reached out and gingerly ran their fingers across the snake as the volunteer held its head.
“I’m not really afraid of it because when I was little my brother had one,” Rayne said a few minutes later.
Jorgia wasn’t quite sold despite putting her apprehension aside.
“It was kind of scary, though,” she said.