Exotic animals close out APL’s Summer Reading Program

Girls and boys quickly slid back to give more space when Gretchen, an 8-foot Madagascar ground boa, made her appearance.

Participants in Atmore Public Library’s Summer Reading Program were taken on a figurative safari when Rick Rakestraw brought his “Critters From Around the World” exhibit here for the program’s final session

Rakestraw, who operates Jungle Adventure Animal Sanctuary in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and his menagerie of exotic animals sparked a wide range of emotions among the more than 200 children and adults who attended the June 30 exhibition.

The crowd roared with laughter at the monkeyshines of simian showstoppers Gabe, a Capuchin critter that shinnied up Rakestraw’s torso and perched on his shoulders, Angel, who performed tricks that included lengthy leaps into her handler’s arms, and Zack, a Celebes macaque who continuously groomed the animal trainer’s hair and body when he wasn’t turning to pose for photos.

In between, the crowd watched and listened attentively as Rakestraw introduced Sonic (an Asian hedgehog), Romeo (an Australian lizard) and Tortie (an African tortoise), providing brief stories and information on each one’s country of origin.

The attention span was heightened – and a vacant space suddenly materialized at the front of the wide-eyed audience – when the animal trainer brought out Gretchen, a boa constrictor from Madagascar, that slithered slowly across the carpet on her eight-foot frame.

APL Director Hope Lassiter said the show was a solid closer to a month of special entertainment programs that also included Bruce and Vernell Brannen’s Wild West Show, Michelle Harrell and Michelle’s Magical Poodles, magician Gary Ledbetter and a fire safety program presented by Atmore Fire Department personnel.

“It was great; I was impressed,” Lassiter said of the show put on by Rakestraw, who had brought the program to the local library before, but not in several years.

“A lot of the children and adults who attended the show would not be able to see these types of animals unless they went to the zoo in Montgomery or Gulf Breeze. All five of our shows were great this year, and I was really pleased with the attendance.”

The chief librarian said 662 children, including preschoolers from First Baptist Church’s daycare program and Atmore Area YMCA summer campers, were on hand for the five programs, as was a group of adults from Atmore Nursing Center. An uncounted number of parents, guardians and chaperones pushed the total closer to 1,000.

Those figures reflected continued growth in the program’s popularity, Lassiter pointed out.

“Our summer reading program has almost doubled in the last two years,” she said. “Last year was big; this year was bigger.”