One of the first things DeDea did was to change the name to the Forsyth Nature Center, to reflect its new mission as an educational facility geared toward instilling conservationist values in its visitors, with a primary focus on indigenous animals and plants.
Today, the Forsyth Nature Center packs a lot in less than an acre, including not only housing for the animals, but also a pond, greenhouse, apiary and native plantings that attract butterflies and birds. There’s even a striking aluminum sculpture of a huge mosquito by an artist from Georgia who participated in the 2008 Kingston Sculpture Biennial and liked the vibe at the nature center so much he donated the work.
Besides DeDea, the center has two seasonal employees—city environmental educator Steve Noble and his wife, Julie, who runs the center’s very successful junior naturalist program in the summer. (The eight-week-long program, which has separate sessions for preschoolers all the way up to seventh graders, teaches crafts and nature study, including kayak expeditions and trips to Esopus Bend Nature Preserve.)
The nature center, free and open year round every day of the week, has a budget of $190,000, including the three salaries. Despite the tough financial times, it’s been extraordinarily successful in garnering support, ranging from the Junior League of Kingston to local businesses such as Artcraft Camera & Digital and Herzog’s True Value Hardware to the Boy Scouts. It’s also one of the most visited sites in the city, with over 40,000 visits clocked last year — a three-fold increase from the number in 2003.
The center’s key attraction continues to be the animals. There are a number of exotic inhabitants at the center, a few of them old-age veterans inherited from the zoo. The 22-year-old bull, Isaac, for example, has intergenerational appeal: parents with young children in tow fondly remember him from their own early childhoods.
Ernie, a pygmy goat, is another long-time resident; he hustles up to the fence when visitors stroll by, hoping they’re paying attention to the “I Love Spinach” sign. He shares the large yard with two other goats, one of whom is Mel, a Nubian goat who hobbles around on three legs — the fourth was severely broken and never healed properly. DeDea said one boy, one of several youngsters who made a donation to the center in lieu of birthday presents for themselves, has a disability and particularly relates to Mel.
The current showstoppers are the seven peacocks, also long-time residents of the zoo: the mating season has begun, and the four males strut around their spacious pen fluffing up their long, jeweled tails to an enormous fan, in hopes of beguiling the two mature hens (a fifth male, two years old, can only look on as his tail will not fully develop for another year). DeDea said there’s a list of responsible takers for the fertilized peacock eggs, with an exchange planned for some golden pheasants. Natives of India — they are forest birds, not hybrids bred for the pleasure of the Raj, as one might think admiring their brilliant blue and green plumage — the pea fowl enjoy being outside even in the winter. Like their cousin, the wild turkey, they roost in trees.
DeDea said his favorite animal, a llama named Trudy, recently died at the advanced age of 30, which is nearly twice the species’ usual lifespan of 15 years. “She was the grande dame of the nature center,” he said, noting that she was also the cleanest animal, defecating in a dung heap, rather than all over the yard. Soon he will be picking up the new inhabitants, a pair picked out from a group of 100 llamas in Schoharie County that were recently rescued from an abusive owner in Montana.
Through the large windows of the stone building near the entrance, visitors can admire numerous chatty, brilliantly colored tropical birds, including love birds, cockatiels, zebra finches and two exotic bantam hybrids, all of which were pets abandoned by their owners. (DeDea referred to the row of floor-to-ceiling cages as “an island for misfit toys.”) Eggs gathered from the hens pecking in a large dirt enclosure are donated to Queen’s Galley.
Whereas zoos have a notorious history of exploiting animals, the nature center is the opposite, providing a haven for injured or neglected animals that otherwise wouldn’t survive. The center encourages people to buy small bags of feed costing a quarter — the proceeds contribute significantly toward the operations — as well as feed the animals certain healthy foods, which are indicated in signs. (There are exceptions to the rule, such as Tulip, a pot-bellied pig whose large, bristly body, balanced on four tiny, delicate hoofs, and huge, jowly head looks oversized; actually, she’s in perfect shape but could easily tip the scales if fed by visitors, noted DeDea.)
Every week, he fields calls from people seeking to donate everything from a painted turtle to a 30-year-old horse. This time of year, many of the calls concern rescued baby rabbits, squirrels and birds from the wild; DeDea will recommend either that people put the creature back, or, if it’s injured or in danger of imminent death, refer them to a licensed animal rehabilitator. DeDea also regularly provides advice to people about purchasing pets; in the case of a tropical bird, for example, he recommends always buying a bird with a paper trail that shows it wasn’t taken from the wild.
A one-eyed red-tailed hawk resides in a large enclosed yard out in the back, its regal, feathered form providing a rare opportunity for people to observe a common bird of prey up close. It consumes four or five mice a day and often obliges visitors by perching near the front of the enclosure, which is lined with river stones; DeDea said the trilling water from the nearby pond is probably a soothing influence. No wonder during a recent mid-morning visit a young wild turkey was seen to be scampering around the nature center fence, perhaps seeking entrance to this wildlife equivalent of a swanky resort.
Small as it is, the center has an advantage over such famous institutions as the Bronx Zoo in that it enables people to get up close and personal with the animals, noted DeDea. Kids can feed and pet the animals through the fence — attention that the bright-eyed, healthy looking four- and two-legged residents seem to relish — put on a beekeeper’s suit as a hands-on way of learning about bees, and watch an interpreter in the demonstration pen explain, for example, the fine points of the live sheep. School groups and a network of home schooled children visit the center throughout the school year.
Several high school volunteers serve as impromptu guides and trouble shooters during the weekend and late afternoon. However, visitors can also tour the center on their own and learn plenty, thanks to the handsome explanatory plaques that identify each animal, including a map showing its place of origin, a description of its habits, and an illustration showing it in the wild. (DeDea even has installed one for the humble water strider, which scoots on the surface of the pond.)
The numerous infrastructure upgrades and additions DeDea has made include the demonstration pen, a gazebo (which is rented out for birthday parties), new fencing, a greenhouse, the native-plant gardens (including a “sensory garden” for young children, which produces tasty berries and includes tall grasses that swish in the wind), and the pond, which he hand dug with assistance from his father. On Wednesday, it was announced that the center will be getting a new permeable parking lot as part of a settlement between the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Callanan Industries.
To fund these projects, in 2003 DeDea launched the Friends of Forsyth Nature Center, which that year hosted the first Fall Festival. The festival is an annual event that most recently attracted more than 3,000 visitors and has raised more than $80,000. In addition, the Friends set up three levels of sponsorship: silver for donations of $250 or more, gold for contributions of $500 or more, and platinum for those of $1,000 or more. Plaques throughout the facility honor businesses, individuals, and organizations who’ve contributed, including Mayor James Sottile, who donated the chicken coop in honor of his late father.
The animals turn out to be the tip of the iceberg; Forsyth Nature Center is an incubator for leadership-building opportunities to city youth and residents. Five Eagle Scout projects have been completed at the center, a process that starts with DeDea making a pitch to the scout, who then does his own fundraising. The log benches in the demonstration pen were contributed by an Eagle Scout. Of the five new projects currently in the works, one is an ambitious plan by Scout Chris Hutton to install solar panels for a hot water heater on the main building, along with panels providing electricity to the horse barn. “It’s a great learning and maturing process for the scouts,” said DeDea. “Each young person takes ownership of the project.”
The Girl Scouts have also been involved, planting bog plants, such as marsh marigolds, along the pond’s perimeter — just one example of the group’s “done in a day” projects.
The Junior League has been the center’s biggest supporter, having donated $20,000 and contributed many hours of volunteer labor. A group of Junior Leaguers in pink hardhats dug the post holes for the demonstration pen. Provisional classes of the Junior League pick and choose their projects, which have included the painting of the apple tree mural on the horse barn; building composting boxes for the “zoo doo” has understandably been the least popular project but is now underway, DeDea said.
The Heart Healthy Coalition donated the boardwalk, which, as an ADA-compliant structure, enables people in wheelchairs to visit the pond. Another big supporter is the Sunrise Rotary Club, which donated $10,000. The Ulster Garden Club helped install the river birches and sugar maple planted near the pond. The list goes on.
DeDea said this year’s major project is replacing the asphalt of the walkways with porous pavers, which will greatly reduce storm-water runoff. Installation of the pavers will be phased in, starting in May. The total cost is $75,000, of which $55,000 has already been raised. (The center got a discount on the cost of the pavers, in agreeing to use one of the supplier’s licensed installers, Berardi Fencing and Landscaping.) Businesses and individuals will be able to donate money as “paver sponsors.”
If you’d like to contribute, contact DeDea at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, now that spring is here, be sure to plan a visit to the center and make the acquaintance of Tulip, Isaac, Ernie, and Mel — and don’t forget to bring spinach and an apple.