Tony Mills has lots of props to capture children's attention.
He has a couple of feisty 4-foot alligators, and a 30-pound snapping turtle with a slightly mean disposition.
There's also a ham of an Eastern Hognose snake - although it's nonpoisonous, it likes to spread its neck like a cobra, and also plays dead - and any number of pine, corn and rat snakes.
Mr. Mills, outreach program coordinator at Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, uses such crawly critters to teach his young subjects about ecology and the importance of protecting natural habitats.
"If you use these animals, you get a window of opportunity to get an important point across," said Mr. Mills, who speaks to thousands of schoolchildren each year and has become a bit of a local celebrity for his movable menagerie of gators, turtles, snakes and salamanders.
"When you have a 4-foot alligator in your hands, people tend to listen."
It doesn't hurt that Mr. Mills is an enthusiastic speaker. Although he has worked at the lab for about 15 years, his voice still reflects a sense of wonder and amazement at the creatures he studies, and he remains active in research projects despite his busy schedule as an educator.
"The more you learn, the less you know," Mr. Mills said last week as he sat at a desk in the laboratory's outreach office, surrounded by the videos, posters and handouts he uses during school visits. "Right now, I'm just crazed about invertebrates."
Demonstrating how he has turned his latest fascination into a classroom lesson, he pulls out sheets of color pictures displaying different insects and myriapods. He uses the sheets to lead children on scavenger hunts in the forests of Savannah River Site, instructing them to find as many different species as possible.
"It is essential, as an environmental educator, that you continue your fieldwork," Mr. Mills said. "It is a great thing to talk to a group of kids, and to be genuinely excited about what you did yesterday, or what you're doing that afternoon."
Mr. Mills' enthusiasm began at age 10, when his mother took him to the Augusta Public Library on Greene Street to hear a lecture by Whit Gibbons, a prominent herpetologist at the ecology lab who still works there today.
Dr. Gibbons, impressed by the budding ecologist's knowledge of snakes, turtles and other creatures, invited young Mr. Mills to the lab for a tour.
"I always had the interest, but Whit basically showed me that you could do this for a living," Mr. Mills said. "His enthusiasm is so contagious, and that's one of the things I've learned. You've got to have fun. It is fun, so why not have fun doing it?"
Now, Mr. Mills works alongside Dr. Gibbons to educate the public about the need to protect biodiversity. The pair recently filmed an episode of Georgia Outdoors for Georgia Public Television - they went swimming for brown water snakes - and also worked on a special for the Discovery Channel.
Mr. Mills says his efforts, and those of many other educators, finally are bearing fruit.
"Someone called me from Aiken, and he had a coral snake," he recalled. "I just think that in the past, that snake would have been in pieces when we got it.
"I really feel like I'm seeing a little bit of a change. I don't know that we can take credit for it ourselves, but I think we're starting to see a change in attitudes toward these animals, and that's nice.
"It has become cool, so to speak, to learn about animals and the environment."
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.
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