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Students get close look at wild kingdom

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Ivy, a 9-year-old freckle-faced girl, liked Barney, the great-horned owl.

Mario, also 9, a handsome dark-haired, dark-eyed boy, will remember Daniel, a peregrine falcon. The birds were brought to their school, Lincoln Elementary, on Friday from Tracy Aviary.The two children were among a group of about 600 youngsters from the Salt Lake District school who had a chance to learn more about nature, the importance of birds and other animals and protecting the environment during a visit by a nature specialist.

Peter Gros, co-host of Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" and associate director of the company's Wildlife Heritage Center, was in Salt Lake City to present a Special Citation to the aviary for its "dedication to preserving wildlife." He also was to entertain local officials and invited guests at a bird and wildlife program late Friday afternoon at the bird park in Liberty Park.

During his visit to Utah, Gros, who appears regularly on cable and other television shows and lectures around the country, also planned to greet special education students Friday at Jordan Valley School. On Saturday he was to speak and give a demonstration at Hogle Zoo.

At Lincoln Elementary, children were descriptive in talking and writing about their visitors.

"I liked the part when they showed the owl.. . . It was squeaking and making noise in the guy's (Gros') ear," Ivy wrote in an essay assigned by her fourth-grade teacher, Randy Miller.

Mario, apparently intrigued with Gros' explanation about how peregrine falcons can fly into a flock of ducks to capture one, wrote that he liked the blue-gray bird with a cream-colored chest "because it's fast and goes into a flock of ducks."

Pam Davenport, the aviary's public relations director, and Miller were among those who gathered to watch Gros with the children, many of whom were rapidly popping questions about what the animals eat that were brought to their school from the aviary and from the zoo.

Gros, who led an expedition of 39 sixth-graders from Michigan to study a Peruvian rain forest in the Amazon Basin, told the students that owls such as Barney eat rabbits, mice, and they "even eat skunks," a statement that sparked a chorus of "oohs" from his young audience. One little girl asked if an owl might eat her cat. She seemed a bit relieved when Gros assured her that a cat would be safe from the owl.

Gros said he was pleased to represent Mutual of Omaha in recognizing the "outstanding work of Tracy Aviary." He said he had not visited the aviary before but had heard of its "unique educational program that entertains children while teaching them the importance of preserving wildlife."

The citation, presented to Marlayn Shreeve, the aviary's executive director, will help fund the aviary's "Birds of a Feather" free-flying bird show.

Gros said Mutual of Omaha is committed to preserving the "wild kingdom." The company's Wildlife Heritage Center is "dedicated to promoting awareness of the natural world and encourages conservation education, both at the grassroots level and on a national scale."

Gros said he sees progress being made in preserving wildlife. He attributed that progress, in part, to discontinuance since the 1970s of the use of DDT.

"Many of our birds of prey (including peregrine falcons) are making a comeback," he said. At one point, fewer than 400 peregrine falcons remained in North America. Through the efforts of zoos, aviaries and birds of prey breeding projects, there are now more than 400 pairs flying free in the wild again, Gros said.

"Our national bird, the bald eagle, has now been removed from the endangered species list," he added. Progress also has been made in the conservation of the black-footed ferret, gray whales and wolves.