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Visitors get up close and personal with wildlife at new Perkins Wildlife Center

11.11.2016

Harvey Webster understands that most visitors to a museum of natural history arrive expecting to see a collection of dusty artifacts and a dinosaur skeleton or two.

But at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Webster serves as Director of Wildlife Resources, a new exhibit showcasing some of Ohio’s native species in their natural habitats is changing those expectations.

The museum’s Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center and Woods Garden – Presented by KeyBank opened Labor Day weekend and has been providing patrons with an unusually up-close experience that puts them within yards of eagles, bobcats, coyotes, river otters and dozens of other animals.

“Our role in public education is connecting people to science through nature,” Webster says. “One of the best ways to do that is through the power of real, live animals.”

Family viewing an otter swimming in a glass enclosureThe Perkins Wildlife nature Center accomplishes that mission through a unique design that incorporates a winding, elevated walkway beneath a canopy of native beech and oak trees in a two-acre outdoor gallery populated by more than 100 animals in five ecological habitats.

At different stops along the way, visitors can venture within 10 feet of bobcats, walk directly above a coyote den, stand below the waterline of a glass-sided wetland community as otters swim past and watch bald eagles and Peregrine falcons soar overhead while moving among thousands of native Ohio plants.

“We wanted it to be like a trailhead,” Webster explains, adding that the museum’s staff hopes the center will “inspire a curiosity among people to come back and want to learn more” while also taking that knowledge and appreciation into their visits to regional parks and nature areas.

The center is named for Ralph Perkins, a Cleveland native and wildlife enthusiast who drowned in 1969. His family helped create the original wildlife center, which reflected Perkins’ personality and interests, Webster says.

“He was a person who was more at ease in the woods and streams than in the classroom,” Webster says.

The wildlife center, created by the noted New York firm Thinc Design, was built with a $14 million budget as the inaugural phase of the museum’s Centennial Transformation Project, which culminates in 2020. KeyBank supported the project with a $2 million donation in keeping with its commitment to support educational and cultural institutions in Cleveland.

From the outset, the center was intended to be different -- more compelling and more interactive than anything visitors had experienced in its previous location, which was situated on space now occupied by a parking garage.

The transformation includes amphitheater-style seating for the center’s aviaries and bobcat habitat; steep, heavily-wooded slopes simulating the terrain encountered in the forests of the lower Great Lakes region; and stunning views of nearby Rockefeller Part and the Cleveland skyline.

Families below watch a bobcat crossing an enclosed, suspended walkway overheadThe animals are at the core of the experience, and most of them were either injured or orphaned and subsequently rescued by wildlife rehabilitation centers, where they were nursed back to health. Three of the center’s four coyotes were saved by a Texas wildlife specialist who surgically removed them from a mother that was struck and killed on a highway.

Webster said the museum has placed a premium on creating an environment that “is not demeaning or disrespectful to the animals, and that doesn’t take advantage of them in any way.” He added, “It was incumbent upon us to provide a context for the animals so it makes sense for the visitor.”

Inherent in the design are sightlines and vantage points that allow the animals to observe visitors in the same manner in which they usually are observed, Webster says.

Another goal is to stimulate thought and conversation among patrons by giving them the opportunity to watch various species interact with one another and with visitors while carrying out the activities they would perform in their natural environments.

“For most of us, our experience is having a raccoon get into our garden or our garbage, and we see that as an issue or a problem,” Webster says. “But when you can see a raccoon up close, how they manipulate food with their forefeet and fish for tadpoles, it changes the conversation. We hope that kindles a sense of conservation that impacts the choices we make and inspires us to think about the consequences of how we live.”

At the heart of the center are “parallel play” zones designed to allow children to emulate the behaviors of the animals.

One zone provides an area where kids can attempt a 10-foot leap – the distance a bobcat typically can cover in a single bound. Another zone enables children to slide down a ramp the same way otters slide into the adjacent wetland.

“It creates almost a physical conversation between people and animals that’s unlike anything most of us has experienced before,” Webster says.

Admission to the Perkins Wildlife Center is included in the cost of admission to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which is located at 1 Wade Oval Drive in Cleveland. Timed tickets are required for the center and are available online at cmnh.org.

The center’s hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Learn more about the Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center and Woods Garden here.

Visit the Cleveland Museum of Natural History website.

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