MANKATO — About 80 people in the Minneopa State Park picnic shelter had their eyes on the reptiles and amphibians Saturday afternoon.
One was focused on the kids — especially the ones that chose a seat on the concrete to get the closest possible view of the frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards and alligator .
"To watch their faces. It was as much that as watching the reptiles," said Tim Pulis, a board member of the Friends of Minneopa State Park organization. "With all the electronics today, kids just aren't getting out in the woods anymore."
On National Get Outdoors Day, admission was free at Minnesota's 75 state parks and many had special events. The Friends of Minneopa financed the visit by Jamie Pastika and his cold-blooded friends from the Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo in Owatonna.
While there was lots of learning and ample entertainment, many of the kids had many of the answers to Pastika's questions.
"What do we call their babies?" Pastika asked, holding an Australian tree frog.
"Tadpoles!" multiple kids responded.
He asked about the largest turtle in Minnesota, providing a hint: "They bite really hard."
"Oh, oh, oh. A snapping turtle!" a boy answered.
After trading out an alligator snapping turtle for a Russian tortoise, Pastika noted that turtle shells are made of keratin and wondered if anybody knew what else is made of keratin.
A pig-tailed girl who seemed to be particularly strong in her reptile and amphibian knowledge raised her hand: "Our fingernails."
"Who knows what the biggest snake in the world is?"
A pre-school boy had the obvious answer: "A very long one."
True enough, Patiska said, adding that the green anaconda — which can top 500 pounds and nearly 30 feet — is big enough to eat a small horse.
The largest lizard in the world? The komodo dragon, the pig-tailed girl and a few others responded. Pastika didn't have one of those behemoths on hand, but he did have a young alligator, it's mouth taped shut.
"What do you think she'd like for a snack?" he asked, holding "Squirt" up for the crowd to see.
"You," a boy guessed.
"Me? No, she'd be scared of a kindergartner," Pastika said, explaining that Squirt likes mice and chicken chunks.
The theme of the presentation was that reptiles and amphibians are interesting, useful in keeping pests at bay and should be treated with respect but not feared. Part of that lesson had to be amended after some news out of Indonesia in 2018.
"I used to tell people, 'No one's every been eaten by a snake.' But unfortunately last year two grown-ups were eaten by pythons."
There were no pythons in Minneopa Saturday, but there was a California king snake that can take on a rattlesnake, squeezing it so tight its heart can't beat. And there was the grand finale snake.
"I was wondering if I could get a helper or two. Or five or six."
A half-dozen kids quickly stepped forward, Patiska got them organized side-by-side, and then he lifted the lid off a large crate.
"Today, I brought you a boa constrictor," he said, prompting more than a few "Oh, no" responses from adults who appeared to be parents or grandparents of the volunteers.
And when the boa constrictor came out, long enough that each of the six kids had plenty of snake to hold onto, a chorus of "Oh my gosh" filled the picnic shelter.
After Patiska finished his presentation, he invited the audience to pet several of the animals. Those "helpers" with the boa constrictor are the key to getting a long line of kids interested in a close-up experience, he explained later: "Once they see the other kids don't get eaten, then they want to pet it."
When the petting was complete, the Friends of Minneopa Park provided free ice cream cones — with Patiska squirting hand-sanitizer from strategic location between the end of the reptile line and the start of the ice cream line.