Home on the range
Colin Brown begins his workday spritzing frogs with water. From his bedroom inside the old servant quarters of the former Bliss estate off of Oenoke Ridge, the Nature Center environmental educator tends to 45 animals kept on the town property before dozens and sometimes hundreds of children arrive at the center for a taste of the great outdoors.
Brown, 27, describes his role at the Nature Center as a blend of teacher, camp counselor and animal keeper.
"They call us naturalists here," he explained. "We have to have that knowledge of the natural world, but we also have to run back and answer E-mail and we have to handle the animals and sometimes I have to go out and shovel snow in the morning if we have a snowstorm. I can be here for 10 or 12 hours and it's like the day just flew by."
The New Canaan Nature Center is a non-profit environmental education center and sanctuary that hosts dozens of child and adult education programs and events created to help community members understand and appreciate wildlife and nature.
"We're kind of tucked down the hill from Route 123 so we're kind of hard to see, but it's really a hidden gem," Brown said. "It's total wide, open space and you don't get a lot of that in Fairfield County."
An outdoorsman from Montville, Brown was bred with an affection for the sort of adventure that can only happen in a wild, undisturbed lot.
"My Dad was the kind of guy who just dragged me through the woods," he said. "We went to Northern New Hampshire to learn how to fly fish rather than Disney Land."
After earning a bachelor's degree in history and sociology from the University of Connecticut, Brown became a teacher of a class of three to six-year-olds at a Montessori school in Colorado. Next he began his career in as an environmental educator at a non-profit called Nature's Classroom in Maine. When school let out for summer vacation, Brown stayed in Maine and, with his father, built a cabin on the coast. Though the house lacked running water, Brown spent two summers there before accepting a job offer at the Nature Center in September 2008.
Now with his desk stationed yards from his bed, Brown is happy to call the 40-acre Nature Center his backyard. He has about 10,045 pets to care for, if he counts the 10,000 bees buzzing inside the center's observation hive, and hundreds of community members to teach each week.
All of the animals at the center are injured or have been kept as domestic pets and cannot survive in the wild, Brown said.
Among the critters is a great horned owl named Socrates with two big, bright eyes like orange gum balls. Brown describes him as a "fan favorite" who "tries to be tough" by hissing at unwanted company peeking into his caged quarters.
Louie, an African pygmy hedgehog, curls up to sleep during the day and uncoils at night. Louie lives in a room among cockroaches, chinchillas, guinea pigs and rabbits.
The animal care building is also home to a turkey vulture with one wing.
"Her name is Ralph because [turkey vultures] throw up as a defense mechanism," Brown said as he opened the door to her coop.
"Hey, don't be mean, don't be mean. Don't wreck my shoes," he scolded as Ralph pecked at his feet. Small scraps of Brown's canvas sneaker peeled off with each jab.
"She's preening," Brown explained. "It's actually a good sign. They think you're part of their pack and they'll peck at each other in the wild, but she does it to us, too. So, it's a sign of affection, but it really hurts."
Handling the animals, Brown said, is the biggest challenge of his job.
"It's a little unnerving," he said. "Our bald eagle is actually only handled by our director of animal care ... she hasn't been able to fly since birth, but her talons are about as big as my hand, so you can image what that's like. It can be dangerous if they get too nervous or too stressed out.
"The best way to approach bird handling is to be calm. If you're nervous or scared or hesitant at all, they pick up on it and it throws them off. Most of our birds have been here for awhile and they know that you don't fight the hand that feeds you. Otherwise, if we released them, they wouldn't survive. It's kind of a give and take: we give them food, water and shelter and they work for us by helping us teach the programs."
A possum named Gus is a former member of the Nature Center animal pack that Brown won't soon forget. Before the possum passed away, Brown brought him out to a program for three and four-year-olds. Gus became anxious and nervous and sunk his teeth into Brown's forearm.
"I tried to cover up the blood from the kids, so I put a glove on because I didn't want to make them nervous and I was kind of eyeing to the teachers and the teachers started freaking out ... then all of a sudden there were tears and waterworks from the kids," Brown said.
Brown now wears coin-sized pink scars on his forearm.
"He was one of my favorites, but he just got scared that one day and hurt my arm," Brown said. "So, it happens, but very rarely."
Animals aside, Brown helps the Nature Center run slews of activities -- from autumn cider pressing programs and winter maple tree adoption drives, to summer hiking trips in the Adirondacks and a cross country ski club.
"Being outdoors, taking kids to the pond or to the bird feeder and allowing kids to have this connection to the natural world is my favorite part of this," he said. "It definitely beats being at a desk and sitting at a computer all day."