After school on a gloomy afternoon, nearly a dozen children gather in the Tustin Boys and Girls Club's new Rain Forest Room, eagerly awaiting a chance to hold one of the snakes, lizards or other exotic animals.
At the center of attention, as he gingerly lifts a furry tarantula from its cage, is Gary Oustad, the club's program director and creator of the Rain Forest Room.
Oustad started the project in April with just two lizards and a rabbit. With community support, the menagerie has grown to more than 30 animals, from fish to a monitor lizard and boa constrictor.
Adding to the atmosphere of the living room-sized space are numerous plants and taped rain forest sounds.
"Our environmental and outdoor education usually involves nature hikes and camping, but I wanted to take it a step further and bring nature here," he said.
Oustad said he hopes the Rain Forest Room will teach children respect for the environment, as well as the responsibility and happiness that can come from caring for animals.
"We try to stress the sanctity of life and the responsibility of taking care of the environment and the world around us," he said.
The neighborhood surrounding the club, at 580 W. 6th St., has a large concentration of apartment buildings, most of which do not allow pets, Oustad said.
"I never get to see this much nature," said Ricky Fuhr, 10. "This place is really cool."
Oustad said he heard many protests when he converted the club's TV room, but some of those detractors became the Rain Forest Room's most active supporters. "I figured the kids could watch TV at home."
The small zoo has grown mostly through donations from the community and an unusual partnership with a local Petco retailer, Oustad said. People who can no longer care for pets will often drop them off at the Petco, and when that happens, manager Pat Williams calls Oustad.
The club also has a recycling program to help pay for food and upkeep, he said.