KINGSTON — Professor Thulani took the stage in a black suit with a white vest, eyed the Wyoming Valley Montessori School students, and started waddling back and forth across the table.
“This is an African black-footed penguin,” Lehigh Valley Zoo conservation educator Lauren Begany said as Thulani strutted, clearly the most confident of the four animals Begany and zoo educator Manly Offutt had brought for a presentation Wednesday morning.
Begany started with a whip scorpion name Indiana. “It’s the kind that was in the Indiana Jones movie,” she explained. The arachnid is large and fearsome looking, but actually harmless, ideal for the role of movie menace opposite top stars.
The youngsters didn’t seem to wince when Offutt walked into the room with an exoskeleton the scorpion had shed — a process, Begany noted, that leaves it susceptible to becoming dinner until the new layer hardens. “A lot of animals like to eat these,” she said.
Next out of the bag — literally, as in a bag toted in in a small cooler — came a ball python named Captain Jack. “We acquired him around the time the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were popular,” Begany explained.
This particular species had been popular with Cleopatra, famous queen of Egypt, Begany said, because they don’t get too large and coil around a forearm without falling off (or squeezing too tight). Cleopatra liked “to wear one as a bracelet.”
As to the “ball” in ball python, it comes from the fact that they “coil up into a ball when threatened,” Begany said. As did the next critter, a three-banded armadillo.
When Begany asked what the children thought the brown armor was made of, one blurted out “dirt.” No, Begany explained, it’s actually just a hard layer of skin, so hard that when the armadillo curls up into a ball it deliberately leaves a little of itself exposed to entice a predator to poke a nose in, ‘Then he snaps it shut.”
“Does it roll?” One boy asked. “Only roll if we rolled it,” she answered. She didn’t demonstrate.
But enough with the pregame.
When the armadillo named Tank was stowed and Thulani debuted, the children clapped and grinned.
They also learned these penguins build nests of “rock and poop,” and that people destroy the habitat to use the poop as fertilizer and in generating electricity.
They were told the penguins each had unique black spot patterns on their breast “just like fingerprints,” Offutt said. And they have no feathers above their eyes, leaving a bare patch that acts “like a mood ring,” changing colors when a penguin is scared or sick, Begany added.
Thulani’s eyebrows were a pleasant shade of pink throughout, showing he was just fine with all the shouting, oohing and attention.
“He’s so comfortable when we show him off,” Begany said, “That we think he thinks he’s a person.”