“Ouch!” I’m holding Rusty, a young Eastern Fox Snake, while my coworker cleans his cage, when it happens. I cringe and see him biting my left index finger, out of nowhere, and it draws a bit of blood. Within seconds, another coworker arrives, hands Rusty to my colleague, and puts my finger under cold water, to wash it off. Although he’s not venomous, I’m shocked, and ask my coworker if I hurt him by accident. She shakes her head and says “No, he’s got brain damage, so you didn’t do anything wrong.” Soon after, I find out that he’s in this condition because a freezing damage happened in his hibernation room in the past, and since he was closest to the vent, he was affected the most. So now I feel sorry for Rusty!
Before this happened, it’s been a normal day at Scales Nature Park, in Oro-Medonte, Ontario, Canada, where I’ve been WWOOFing* for a while. Scales Nature Park is a nature preserve, and first opened its doors to the public in December 2009. This is where you can see “Canada’s largest collection of native amphibians and reptiles”, as shown on their website, as well as some exotic animals. Scales Nature Park has an indoor nature centre, where the snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, and salamanders live, a gift shop, a classroom, and a 21-hectar outdoor nature park with 4 km of walking trails. Here you can find natural wetlands and upland habitat, hardwood forests, ponds, and hemlock groves. If it’s your lucky day, you might even see local wildlife, like garter snakes, toads, chipmunks, and beavers. Some previous travel companions, who’d WWOOFed at Scales Nature Park before, had told me lots of exciting stories, so now it was my turn to see it for myself!
Three weeks earlier, Jeff Hathaway, the founder and owner of Scales Nature Park, picked me up at the Greyhound bus station in Barrie, and a bunch of friendly staff and WWOOFers greeted me when we arrived. After leaving my luggage in the 4-bed female dorm I was staying at, and a quick tour of the property, I found myself in a car with my new colleagues. Our destination was nearby Bass Lake Provincial Park, a popular camping spot, where Scales Nature Park hosted a reptile show. Jeff and his experienced staff members had brought some small snakes and turtles, and taught the audience about their characteristics and behaviour. People were listening intently, but it seemed that everyone, including myself, was most excited about touching or even holding the snakes at the end! For a long time, I’d assumed that their skin is slithery, like a fish’s, but instead, it turned out to be very dry.
My first task every morning is wiping the outside windows of the animals’ terrariums in the exhibit hall, before the first customers arrive. Later, I clean some containers the animals were in during reptile shows (when they weren’t shown to the audience), and cut vegetables for the turtles to eat with other WWOOFers. About a week after arriving at Scales Nature Park, a coworker teaches me how to sell admission tickets and gift shop items to customers at the cash desk. Then I refer them to a staff member, who shows them around the exhibit hall, and explains things about each animal. As time goes on, my list of tasks keeps growing, like sweeping floors inside the exhibit hall, assisting Jeff at a reptile show in Toronto, and translating a WWOOFer’s manual from English to German, as many of them are from Germany. Besides, everyone, whether staff member or WWOOFer, is expected to help with household tasks outside of work (e.g. cooking, wiping tables, cleaning non-public bathrooms, and washing dishes), on a rotating schedule. Feeding and cleaning the inside areas of the animals’ homes is mostly reserved to Jeff and experienced staff, who have attended local universities or colleges for biology, reptile care, or something similar. Still, I learn a lot by watching them, and love helping with tasks, like holding a few animals, while a colleague cleans their cages.
Still, there’s lots of room for free-time activities. For example, one sunny day, a coworker and I borrow bikes from Scales Nature Park, and ride them on a beautiful path towards Orillia, where we hang out next to Lake Simcoe. Another day, we see some local bands playing at a concert in Orillia, then have a few drinks and sing karaoke at a bar. One evening, the majority of staff and WWOOFers are going on a spontaneous wildlife tour (unfortunately, I don’t remember the location), where we see a few wild animals. We also watch movies at a drive-in movie theatre in Orillia and Scales Nature Park’s classroom, play card games and have lots of fun conversations, swim in the pool, and relax in the whirlpool after a long day. Last but not least, eating meals together each day makes getting to know each other a lot easier!
But Scales Nature Park has a lot more to offer, such as:
- Turtle Boot Camp. From May 3-16, 2021, Scales Nature Park will host this event, which, according to their Facebook page, is “the most intensive and thorough reptile focused field training available in Ontario”. This training program is mandatory for their field staff, but other people are welcome to apply as well. Attendees will find out how to identify turtles, handling methods, marking techniques, digital data entry, and more! The cost is C$ 2,000 plus HST or free if you’re volunteering at Scales Nature Park for a month, and shared accommodations are included as well (quarantine restrictions are in effect).
- Community Turtle Training. This 1-Day workshop will happen again in April 2021, through the Save Turtles At Risk Today (START) project. It’s made for local community members, who can’t participate in the Turtle Boot Camp, and want to know more about turtles. For example, attendees are taught about distinguishing species and male and female turtles, and how to handle them, taking good observation data, when the Reptile hotline should be phoned, and will prepare an injured turtle care kit. This will be an online event this time, for adults only, because of the responsibility involved.
- Herpetology Internship Program. This program was first introduced in September 2020, and its main target group are students or recent graduates from 18-30 years, who have difficulties finding a job because of COVID-19. It’s a 4, 8, or 12-month residential program, and participants will collect experience about various topics related to herpetology and conservation, such as: Identifications, life history, animal handling and husbandry of 70+ species, and outdoor skills. International applicants are welcome as well, and Scales Nature Park is happy to assist with travel arrangements, and accommodation and meals are included in the program cost.
- Halloween Flashlight Tours. A few days before Halloween each year, Scales Nature Park hosts this fun event! It’s a great way for kids and adults to find out what the reptiles and amphibians are up to in the dark, which is their favourite time of the day to be active. The indoor nature centre is decorated in the “Halloween spirit”, and some staff and animals are happy to dress in costumes. Don’t forget your flashlight, and if you wear a costume, you’ll get 25% off the admission price!
- Reptile Camp. Scales Nature Park was proud to host this popular event during March break 2019, in summer 2018, and previous years. It’s a day camp program for adventurous kids aged 7-12 years, who are eager to learn about exotic and native reptiles, and how to handle and feed them. Participants also got a chance to explore nearby pond and forest habitats, and find out why it’s important to “respect and conserve nature”, as per Scales Nature Park’s website. Last but not least, this program included games and craft projects, that could be taken home at the end, and I’m sure lots of new friendships were made, too! The cost was C$ 245 per child for 5 days (Monday-Friday).
- Leaders in Training Camp. This day camp program last happened in summer 2018, for youth from 13-17 years, and although not mandatory, it was recommended to sign up for two weeks. In this program, participants learnt how to come up with fun activities as a summer camp counsellor, leadership, and of course, animal care! Besides, first aid and safety training, equipment usage, and planning skills were are a part of this program. The cost for five days (Monday-Friday) was C$ 120 per person. Unfortunately, this event, Reptile Camp, and some others won’t be offered this year due to COVID-19, but hopefully, they can happen again in 2022!
- Media coverage. Scales Nature Park has been interviewed by the media several times, such as CTV Barrie News, The Weather Network, Ontario Nature Magazine, and Moose 99.5 FM, an online radio station.
- Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital. This is a non-profit organization founded by Scales Nature Park. Its main focus will be to treat injured turtles, incubate recovered eggs, and taking care of turtle conservation “through public education, population monitoring, and research”, according to their website. The opening date is currently TBA, and it’s planned that staff and volunteers will run these projects in the Georgian Bay/Lake Huron watershed region. Scales Nature Park has also collaborated with other partner organizations throughout the years, such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Ontario Nature, Sciensational Sssnakes, and several universities, e.g. the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Trent University, and Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA.
- Conservation projects. Within time, Jeff and his team launched several projects to protect reptiles, such as the Saving Turtles At Risk Today (START) project. In cooperation with the Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Laurentian University, and Trent University, Scales Nature Park intends to decrease dangers (e.g. road mortality and habitat loss) to local turtle species. Turtles are collected from wetlands, bodies of water, and along roads, then measured, weighed, shell-notched, and marked, to estimate how many turtles live in a specific area. Also, staff and volunteers put up nest cages to protect eggs from predators, like foxes, skunks, and racoons, or eggs are excavated at the Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital. After the turtles hatch, they are released into wetlands, if possible near the nest location where they were found. Then there’s the Georgian Bay Conservation Action, Research and Education about Snakes (C.A.R.E.S) project, launched in 2020, which centers around the conservation of endangered and threatened snakes of the Georgian Bay watershed, such as the Massasauga rattlesnake, Eastern Hog-nosed snake, and Eastern Fox snake. For example, by reducing natural threats and teaching people why snakes are crucial to people and the ecosystem, Jeff and his team hope to convince some people to change their negative opinion about snakes. Some of these animals are taken from their home for additional data collection, including digital images, measurements and mass, and blood samples may be taken for DNA analysis. Scales Nature Park also keeps an eye on roads around the region “to monitor road mortality and inform mitigation efforts such as snake exclusion fencing”. For more information about Scales Nature Park’s many conservation efforts, please see this link: http://www.scalesnaturepark.ca/conservation.
How to get to Scales Nature Park
Scales Nature Park is right next to Highway 11 in the township of Oro-Medonte, about an hour north of Toronto, and a 20-minute drive from Barrie. If using a GPS, make sure that it says Oro-Medonte, not Orillia, and their entrance is on Line 15 South, not Line 15 North. Watch out for the entrance sign next to the road. Here’s their contact information:
82 Line 15 South
Phone: +1 705-327-2808
The map is photo courtesy of Scales Nature Park.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Scales Nature Park (both the indoor and outdoor area) couldn’t open on March 14, 2020 as planned, and will be closed to the public until further notice. Please visit their website and/or social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter) for updates.
Under normal circumstances, Scales Nature Park’s hours are as follows:
- March break (for elementary schools and surrounding weekends): Monday-Sunday, 11 am – 4 pm.
- Spring (March break to late June): Weekends only, from 11 am to 4 pm.
- Summer (late June to Labour Day): Wednesday to Monday, 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Tuesdays.
- Fall (Labour Day to October 31): Weekends only, from 11 am to 4 pm.
- Winter (November 1 to March break): Closed, but private tours can be arranged.
Most of Scales Nature Park’s facilities can be accessed by wheelchair, depending on weather. Guests in a wheelchair need to travel over grass for a short time, to use the wheelchair entrance, and staff is always eager to help. In winter, it might not be possible to use this entrance because of snow. But Jeff and his team are happy to assist guests booked on a private tour unable to use stairs, if informed about this prior to arrival.
WWOOFing at Scales Nature Park was one of the best decisions I made during my first year in Canada, for lots of reasons. Thanks to the liberal and easy going atmosphere, I felt welcome immediately, and Jeff, his team, and I had several things in common, like listening to a Rock music radio station all day, lol! Many of us were within a similar age group, and it was inspiring to see that everyone seemed to enjoy his/her job. Although we worked hard every day, to ensure visitors of all ages were having the best time, I never felt overwhelmed. I’m grateful to Jeff and everyone else for teaching me a bunch of cool stuff about snakes, turtles, lizards, and amphibians. Soon after leaving this place, I was able to apply what I’d learnt by helping a turtle across a highway road, so exciting! I’m very impressed by Jeff’s passion to keep Scales Nature Park (and its partner organizations) growing over the years, which I’m sure helped to gain a good reputation in Ontario, still, it must haven taken a lot of time, effort, and money. I also appreciated that the animals at Scales Nature Park are very well cared for, thanks to Jeff and his team’s many years of experience. Some animals, including snakes and other reptiles, are often falsely judged, so I like that they explain to people why these fascinating creatures are beneficial to us and the environment, and offering to touch or hold them. Speaking of the environment, I also liked that staff and WWOOFers were asked to not flush toilet paper, to save water; instead, it was collected and burnt regularly inside Scales Nature Park’s outside area. Lastly, I think that working at a cash desk and improving my English skills by talking to lots of people every day made it easier to get my first paid job in Canada a few months later.
Please note: I WWOOFed at Scales Nature Park in August 2012, so some things may have changed with time.
*WWOOFing is short for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and people can stay and help out on a farm (or other operation) for a limited time. Workers don’t get paid, but accommodation and meals are included, so it’s a sweet way to collect experience, meet new people, and save money. It’s similar to volunteer work. Before starting a WWOOFing adventure in Canada, you need to sign up on their website (https://www.wwoof.ca/) for a one-year membership, which is CAD 55.00 for a single, and CAD 80.00 for a joint membership.
So if you’re in the area and interested in learning about reptiles and amphibians, I highly recommend checking out Scales Nature Park, once the world is back to normal. Cheers! 😄😁