The Rescues at Plum Creek

Quartet of creatures rules the roost at the nature center


What slithers and creeps, waddles and sleeps at Plum Creek Nature Center in Crete Township?

The answer is a number of creatures that call the nature center home. The group includes Bud the ball python, Smashbox the three-toed box turtle, Daenerys the bearded dragon, and Shoebert the tiger salamander.

How did all these interesting creatures find their way to the nature center? It’s an interesting story, said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist at the site.

“All of our animals are rescues,” he said. “They were acquired through adoptions. People either found them or bought them and couldn’t or didn’t want to take care of them anymore.”

While Shoebert is the only native species included in the group, all four serve as a good representation of their snake, lizard, turtle and salamander species, Bryerton explained.

“This allows visitors to get a close-up view of these animals and see their differences and similarities,” he said.

Some of the animals can be touched, usually during a program or an event, but as a rule they aren’t taken out of their cages for individual visitors.

The resident reptiles not only help visitors learn about their species, but they teach other lessons as well.

“We talk about the fact that these critters were not wanted or people were unable to care for them,” Bryerton said. “In general, these types of animals do not make good pets, since they do not do too much, and have very special requirements. Snakes and turtles live an especially long time, and so it is a big commitment once you get them. They should not be acquired without knowing all of the details about their needs, care and longevity.”

But the reptiles are a good fit for the nature center because they are hardy and generally have a passive temperament, so they can be handled and used for programs with visitors, Bryerton added.

This Bud’s for you

Bryerton adopted Bud the ball python in 1992 through the Chicago Herpetological Society. Bud’s original owner replaced Bud with a trendier potbellied pig after becoming bored with the snake.

Bud lived with Bryerton when he worked at another nature center, and the snake has been seen and touched by thousands of kids through the years. Bud came to Plum Creek Nature Center around 2006 when the reptile exhibit was created.

Ball pythons in general are long-lived, and one in captivity lived to be almost 48 years old. Bryerton assumes Bud is at least 27 years old.

“I specifically was looking for a snake at the time that would be large enough that kids could see it but not get so large as to be dangerous to handle on your own. The ball python fit the bill."

“Also ball pythons react to danger by putting their heads in the middle and rolling into a ball, so they are very gentle and never even try to strike,” Bryerton added. “Bud is usually under his log and visitors have to search for him. His size also thrills visitors and they are surprised at how big he is when they find him. Once they see him in the cage, visitors call out to others in their group to show them. Bud works with school groups and at special events. While they’re scared at first, many kids wind up getting close to Bud to get a good look at him.

“He has been a great ambassador and has helped people get past their fear and get to know more about snakes.”

Coming out of his shell

Three-toed box turtles are native to Missouri, Tennessee and other southern states. They become souvenirs when people on vacation think the turtles will be good pets. Oftentimes, the turtles get released when the tourists get home and become disenchanted with the species or sometimes the turtles escape outdoor enclosures on their own.

“Either way, this is not good for the turtles,” Bryerton said. “Since they are not from here, they cannot survive our winter and they could introduce bacteria into the environment that could hurt native turtles.”

Smashbox was found wandering around a Cook County forest preserve and he wound up at the Chicago Herpetological Society where he was cleaned of the debris that was smashed into his shell, which led to his name.

At first, Smashbox was adopted by someone who had a lot of turtles. But the turtle wasn’t happy with this arrangement and he didn’t eat much. The turtle was offered to Plum Creek, where he now has his own pad.

“He is still a bit shy, but has done much better since coming to the nature center,” Bryerton reported. “It seems he has come out of his shell a bit.”

District staff aren’t sure how old Smashbox is, but he was full grown when he was found.

“We think he is at least in his mid-20s and can live until he is 100 or more,” Bryerton said. “Smash is a huge hit with visitors. Kids come in and love to see if they can find him in his cage. He is so gentle and shy and moves so slowly the kids just love him.”

Daenerys the dragon lady

Daenerys, or Dani for short, was donated to the nature center by a Chicago Herpetological Society member. Bearded dragons are originally from Australia, but they are captive bred in the United States now as Australia no longer allows their export. Dani was purchased as part of a pair, but the other lizard was aggressive toward Dani and it bit and harassed her. The lizards kept growing and eventually they were put up for adoption.

Dani arrived at Plum Creek in 2014 and she’s around 5 years old now. Bearded dragons can live for around 7 to 12 years in captivity.

“Dani gets a lot of response from visitors because she’s big and is often out in the open where she can be seen,” Bryerton said. “She has a bit of personality and will cock her head to look at movement outside of the cage. She is so friendly and gentle, it’s hard to say if she or Smashbox is the most popular. Also many visitors have commented that they have had or have a bearded dragon and so get a real kick out of watching her.”

If the Shoebert fits

Shoebert was brought to Plum Creek by some Crete residents who found him in their house in a shoe.

“He was dried up and covered in dust and dirt,” Bryerton said. “They have cats and were totally shocked that he made it into the house without the cats getting him.”

The salamander’s rescuers weren’t sure where Shoebert came from or what to do with him, so they brought him to the nature center.

“Since we have salamanders in the preserve, we thought it would be good to have a representative salamander to be able to show at programs. So we set up cage for him and he has responded very well. He’s been completely rehydrated and has grown a bit since we got him, so he seems to be doing very well.

“He is now a representative for all salamanders and helps us show how fragile they can be.”

To see these resident animals, visit Plum Creek Nature Center, which is located in Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve. The center is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Plum Creek Nature Center is closed on Mondays.

Photos by Chad Merda