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Squeals of excitement fill the Homer Lake Interpretive Center when kids first discover the turtles swimming in their aquariums.

“Look, he’s swimming! Awwww, how cute! Yay, he’s coming over by me!!”

One of the most unique and enjoyable parts of working at a nature center is the fact that there are always animals around, and we get to share them with enthusiastic visitors excited to see them up close.

Here at the Interpretive Center, several animals serve as ambassadors for nature, including three turtles, a snake and a fish. They cannot be released back into the wild, and so they have a home here.

They generally interact with lots of people each year through the programs and exhibits we offer. But of course, this year, our animals have not had the opportunity to participate in any in-person programs (just a few virtual ones).

And so staff have gotten creative with providing the animals with enrichment and human interaction as a way to keep them healthy, active and socialized.

Recently, staff set up a fenced-in exercise pen for the turtles, complete with an obstacle course made up of pool noodles, rocks, logs and a small water bath. The Red-eared Slider and Painted Turtle explore this area eagerly. (Check out a recent video on our Facebook page to see them in action!)

The Black Rat Snake also gets a chance from time to time to exercise outside his enclosure, supervised of course ... he is a good climber! One of the first things visitors notice about him is that, despite his name, he is almost pure white. This is because he is leucistic, a genetic condition that prevents him from producing most pigments. It’s similar to albinism, but he has pretty blue eyes instead of the pink eyes that are common in albino animals.

Want to help support the animals’ care? Check out the Animal Advocate sponsorship program on our website. We also always need birdseed for the wildlife viewing area, especially in the winter; black oil sunflower seed is always appreciated — thank you!

To enjoy the animals from home, check out several videos about them on our Facebook page and YouTube channel. We hope you enjoy these and then come out to visit us and the animals inside the Homer Lake Interpretive Center! The Center is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.

Pam Leiter is assistant director of the museum and education department at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. She manages the Homer Lake Interpretive Center and oversees the environmental programming throughout the district. Email her at

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