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Picnic packs punch





Marcella McCluskey was one of the hundreds of students sporting black and gold at Monday's back-to-school picnic at Fort Hays State University. She stood on the far end of the Quad handing out fliers for Sternberg Museum of Natural History, where she interns.

She wasn't alone at the Sternberg booth. McCluskey was accompanied by her friend Cooper -- a king snake. Cooper rested peacefully on her neck as she greeted students. Some even were brave enough to pet Cooper or take pictures with him.

"He's a cuddler," said McCluskey, a senior communications major.

Cooper is estimated to be about 20 years old and originally is from the wild.

David Levering, education director for Sternberg, said Cooper helps kids understand snakes.

"He turns their fear into fascination," Levering said.

Adults are more likely to be scared, McCluskey said.

"It turns what a lot of people think of as fear and helps kids learn not all snakes will kill you," she said. "If kids are really young, they're totally fascinated and will try to grab the snake by the face. The fear comes later as you get older."

Levering developed an interest in snakes at a young age. He worked for outdoor summer camps and assisted with outreach programs.

"I like talking about science, especially with the general public," he said. "I like going outside. I've been interested in paleontology since I was 5."

In addition to Cooper, Sternberg uses Jeffery the turtle and other reptiles to educate kids.

"Mammals carry diseases, so we don't work with them," Levering said. "Reptiles are pretty chill."

More than 100 organizations showcased their events or activities at the picnic. Hundreds of students flocked to the booths.

Encounter at Celebration Community Church set up a slip-and-slide. The Global Leadership Project gave attendees free shirts for answering trivia questions about global issues. Western Plains Animal Refuge brought pets to entertain students.

"There were a lot of groups," said Michelle Allen, who recently transferred from Cloud Community College. "I signed up for a couple of them. I saw a dog at the animal shelter booth, so that was pretty cool."