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by Stephanie LaDue, FWCB Class of 2018

I have always loved animals and been interested in the preservation of endangered species. During the summer after my freshman year, I visited South Africa on a study abroad and fulfilled my dream of seeing the big five in their natural habitat. During this trip, I stayed in a village that bordered Kruger National Park. When I asked the children of the village to draw pictures of their favorite animals, I was surprised that they drew animals common in the village, such as donkeys and chickens, rather than the magnificent animals on the other side of the fence. I realized that proximity doesn’t ensure a connection. North Carolina has an abundance of wildlife, but most of us have never see the variety of animals we share space with. I think most of us have seen opossums that didn’t make it across the road, averted our eyes, and driven on, but how many have seen a live opossum up close? I never had until I became an intern at the Piedmont Wildlife Center (PWC) where I met, and fell in love with, Penelope.

Penelope is a Virginia Opposum (Didelphis virginianus) who came to PWC as a baby. Her neurological problems prevent her from being released into the wild so she lives at PWC and serves as an ambassador to the public. PWC’s ambassadors include snakes, turtles, and raptors. As an intern, I visited elementary schools with some of the animals. For most of the children, these visits were their first connection with the wildlife that surrounds them every day. We also participated in the NCSU Earth Fair where families with children were excited to see an owl up close. I now see firsthand how these educational outreach experiences are critical for increasing understanding of local wildlife.

Even though my internship has ended, I plan to return to PWC to help with their annual BioBlitz event, which is a species scavenger hunt to inventory everything from birds to mushrooms. One of my tasks as an intern was to use radio telemetry to track Eastern Box Turtles. During the BioBlitz, I’ll lead the public on tracking hikes and explain the importance of protecting this threatened species. Durham is a long way from Kruger, but I have seen firsthand that involving the community in local wildlife is key to preserving wildlife in both areas.