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'Summit' Talks Bring Kids Closer to Nature : The seminars, geared to elementary schools, have included sessions on pollution and visits with pythons, wolves and giant birds of prey.


"Oooh, that's neat!" squealed the fifth-graders as they watched a handful of tarnished copper pennies magically begin to gleam as if newly minted.

It was a demonstration involving nothing more high-tech than vinegar with a pinch of salt.

But Peter Kaiser, who works for the county as a waste management analyst, knew it would make memorable his talk on how to cut back on use of toxic, caustic chemicals that usually end up polluting our water supply.

He was one of several experts putting on a show last week at a Casitas Springs campground where 250 kids and teachers had gathered for an "Earth Summit" designed for local elementary schools.

Other sessions at the summit involved confrontations with pythons, wolves and giant birds of prey--to which the kids reacted with gasps of "ohmigod." And there were close-up looks at sea cucumbers (an animal, not a vegetable) to which they quite understandably reacted with cries of, "Oooh, creepy."

There was also a session devoted to "New Games," a cooperative rather than confrontational sport, organized by Mario Porto, a teacher at Moorpark Community High School, a facility for at-risk kids. The squeals of delight from 250 kids playing vigorous games that require mutual trust, cooperation and skill was deafening.

The environmentally oriented Barnum of this event is Matt Kelly, who has been a substitute teacher in local schools for seven years. Kelly, who has drawn together a group of individual presenters for a series of all-day, outdoor events promoting planetary consciousness, said he organized and promoted the event "like a rock concert."

He formed a company called EnviroMentality and "booked some acts," he said, extending the metaphor. The Ventura County superintendent of schools blessed the idea. And when kids and teachers heard about this opportunity to spend a spring day outside the classroom, up close and personal with nature, they embarked on various fund-raising gambits to raise about $10 a head to attend.

Although the next staging of the full event won't be until fall, it is possible for schools to bring one or more of the presentations Kelly organizes to local campuses.

The animals that produced the gasps were in the charge of Jerry Thompson, head of the Raptor Rehabilitation and Release Project, a Simi Valley-based group.

"We're not something from 'Jurassic Park,' " Thompson said to the kids. "We take care of wild animals that are wounded until they can go back to nature."

But before the kids could express disappointment at not seeing man-eating monsters, he unveiled an astonishingly large bird, big as some of the tots present, which he said was a horned owl. As the gorgeous beast calmly surveyed its audience with its huge eyes, Thompson explained that it had been found wounded as a chick and raised by project staff.

Just like a duck, which will follow anything that first feeds it, the owl became imprinted with a relaxed attitude toward humans.

It was one of several creatures, including hawks, possums, raccoons and even a timber wolf, which had been rescued in circumstances that precluded their eventual re-release into the wild. But he stressed that if kids or their parents find a wounded wild animal they should call the local animal regulation authorities rather than attempting amateur raptor-rescue heroics.

A similar no-nonsense approach to dealing with wild animals was described by Holly Snyder, a marine biologist with Island Packers, which offers nature study programs at the Channel Islands National Park.

Snyder had a big soft drink cooler, which she called her "traveling ocean." It contained live examples of local undersea creatures. She had collected the starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers the day before, she said, "to show them to some funny-looking kids." On the following day, she said, the creatures would be returned to the Pacific.

A moving conclusion to the day was provided by Pat Tumamait, a member of the local Chumash tribe. Surrounded by the children drawn up in a large circle, he performed a ceremony involving the burning of sage. "Take the time to study the Indian way," he said. "I hope you grow strong and honest and create a better life while you're here on the planet."


* FYI: For information on:

EnviroMentality, call Matt Kelly at EnviroMentality, 644-6288.

Raptor Rehabilitation and Release Project, contact Jerry Thompson at 526-0862.

The Island Packers study program, call Holly Snyder at 642-1393.

New Games, call Mario Porto at 378-6384.

Waste reduction and recycling demonstrations, contact Peter Kaiser at 654-3849.

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