African Safari: An Interactive Animal Exhibit for Children
According to Dick Welch, Nancy Frock passed up the greatest deal of her life -- a 12-foot long, three-ton rhinoceros for her living room.
What began as a 2005 dinner party conversation among Dick Welch, his wife, Rusti, Charles Frock, president and CEO of FirstHealth of the Carolinas, and his wife, Nancy, has evolved into FirstSafari, an interactive animal exhibit for children at FirstHealth's Child Development Center in Pinehurst.
Dick and Rusti Welch, who are avid hunters, donated several safaris' worth of animal trophies, including a white rhinoceros, Nile crocodile, two lions and a zebra, to the FirstHealth Child Development Center, hoping that their animals could serve as educational resources for children.
The Child Development Center provides day care services for children of FirstHealth employees at the Moore Regional Hospital campus.
A student activity room connected to the center's cafeteria has been transformed into a tour through the African Serengeti, a village hut and a mountain lodge where visitors can see and interact with the animals on display.
Child Development Center director Frank Guevara hopes that teachers can utilize the educational potential of the room either in the form of animal and environmental studies or more simply with the exploration of shapes, colors and textures for younger children.
"It lends itself to a variety of question-and-answer discussions," Guevara says. "This fits right in with different types of learning styles."
Unlike museum exhibits or zoos, the center allows children to see the animals up close and touch them. With a hands-on learning approach, children will be able to learn more about what animals are like in the wild.
"Who knew that a rhino was this large?" Guevara says with a laugh.
The Welches, who had already been contacting museums, colleges, zoos and hunting clubs in order to get rid of the trophies, jumped at the opportunity to contribute to an exhibit at the Child Development Center.
"I knew they were too good to just throw away," Dick Welch says.
A 35,000-square-foot mural covers the walls, ceiling and floors of the room and transfers visitors to an African safari with realistic landscapes depicting what would actually be seen in the natural habitats of the animals. Animals native to these habitats are also rendered in the mural and labeled so that children can further identify with the different regions.
Tom and Casey Kilgore, muralists who run CK Paints in Morganton, were commissioned for the project.
"What started out as an eight-week project ended up taking five months," Tom Kilgore says.
"We treated it as a blank canvas, and we sort of adjusted as we went along," Casey Kilgore says.
The Kilgores also included small details within the mural to make the exhibit more engaging. The mural includes an I-Spy activity that challenges children to locate a list of items on the walls.
Children will be able to appreciate animals in a simulation of their natural habitats up close, without having to go to the zoo or travel to exotic places to see them.
Rusti Welch also hopes that children can learn about both conservation and hunting and realize that the two are not mutually exclusive.
"You don't just go over there willy-nilly and just shoot anything," Rusti Welch says.
African governments strictly regulate game hunting and are careful about maintaining animal populations. Guides, who are familiar with the land and its animals, choose older animals for hunters to kill. They also choose animals based on population controls. Often younger animals and females are off limits.
The Welches had to obtain hunting licenses for each animal they were hunting on their trips.
Game hunting is also an economic contribution for many African countries. Hunting expenses for foreigners, such as licenses, guided hunting tours and equipment, contribute to the local economies and allow for communities to develop their infrastructures -- new schools, running water systems and other ventures.
"It's not about killing animals. It's a sport. It's a livelihood," Rusti Welch says. "Africans are so proud of it."
Dick Welch says he never initially wanted to kill a giraffe, when talking about the one in his collection. Local guides told him that killing a giraffe for bait would be the only way Welch would get a lion. Since this trip was Welch's fifth attempt at hunting lions, Welch felt inclined to get a giraffe.
Welch's giraffe was an older male that the guides had culled out of the herd. Guides could tell that it was very old because of the larger size of its spots and their darker color.
"If Dick didn't get him, someone else would have gotten him," Rusti Welch says.
Dick Welch describes the culling of animals in Africa to domestic forms of animal population control in North Carolina. He parallels a gardener's frustration with deer eating produce in Moore County to an African farmer's plight with elephants destroying a year's entire crop in one night.
"They've got to cull them out," Dick Welch says. "Elephants destroy crops just like deer do here."
The Welches also want children to come and understand the magnitude of these animals. Most of the animals in the exhibit were difficult to hunt because they are elusive and dangerous creatures.
"The real lesson is that as safe as they look, they are not, and they're wild. They're not pets," Rusti Welch says.
The Welches have so many stories to tell about the hunting trips involving each animal. And though they are somewhat nostalgic seeing their trophies put on display for the public, they take comfort in knowing that the exhibit will help children and FirstSafari visitors learn more about the animals represented and the natural world.
Though the exhibit is currently open for children and employees at the facility, FirstSafari is available to the public via pre-arranged, private tours. For more information about the exhibit and the Child Development Center, call (910) 715-5761.
Hannah Sharpe can be reached at (910) 693-2485.
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