Kids in Chris Simms' Wild Adventures program enjoy the up-close interaction with exotic animals...and an NFL quarterback
Last year, in the first round of his "Wild Adventures" program, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms got to interact with a warthog. It wasn't exactly his favorite moment of the day.
Now, Simms is an animal-lover – that and his affection for kids was the genesis for Wild Adventures, in which he shepherds a dozen kids from the Children's Home through a series of fun and informative nature encounters – but he doesn't necessarily love all the animals equally.
"I like the cute animals," Simms admitted last week during the first of his 2007 Wild Adventure days. "Dolphins, cats, things of that nature – that's more up my alley."
Simms got this year's Wild Adventures started last Wednesday, leading the kids from the Children's Home through a behind-the-scenes tour of Tampa's impressive Lowry Park Zoo. Lowry Park is home to more than 1,800 animals housed in natural habitats, ranging from penguins to manatees to tigers.
And a few other not-so-cute animals. The zoo rolled out the red carpet for the Children's Home visitors, as knowledgeable handlers took them off the beaten path and into close contact with some of the facility's most interesting residents. That included an egg-loving, 830-pound domestic pig, an alligator close enough to pet and a frightening bird billed as "the world's largest vulture."
Arnold the pig waddled out into the Zoo Ventures Theater to meet the kids, and the vulture was among a number of fascinating birds kept in an off-limits area behind the Theater. Both animals are somewhat famous; they've appeared on the Conan O'Brien show on separate occasions, as has the strikingly handsome bald eagle that was brought out of his habitat to show off.
The kids from the Children's Home were fascinated by the eagle, especially when he tried to fly away from the handler and brushed one of the visitors with his wings.
"I think they all really enjoy it," said Simms of the Wild Adventure visits, which will head to Big Cat Rescue in north Tampa next. "It's educational, for one, and it gets them out of the house for the day. You get to interact with animals, learn a few things. I think it's interesting. And in this video-game age, I think it's good to get the kids outside and have a little fun.
"Kids sit in front of the TV playing their XBox all day. It's good to get them outside and have a little fun, and let them learn a little about nature and their surroundings. You learn about places all over the world, because most of these animals are not from Tampa, that's for sure."
Actually, these kids must be spending a little time in the classroom, too, because they were surprisingly knowledgeable about most of the animals they came in contact with. One of the visitors, for instance, knew the approximate radius that a screech owl can turn its head, and why the owl hunts at night. Another correctly guessed that vultures use vomiting as a self-defense technique, and yet another volunteered the information that flamingos get their pink hue from eating shrimp.
"I was impressed with what they already knew," said Simms. "It was a great group of kids. They were very well-behaved, of course, and they just seemed extremely interested in what we were doing. That makes it more enjoyable for me and hopefully for everybody else involved."
Of course, the kids seemed most interested in Simms, who belongs to that rare breed of "NFL quarterback." Most kids are more likely to encounter a sandhill crane or a Florida alligator than a professional athlete, but Simms makes his Wild Adventures program a treat for the boys and girls of the Children's Home by interacting with them in a loose and easy manner.
"Usually, they're a little shy with me at first, but we have a good time together," said Simms, who had two of the girls clinging to his arms before they got to the first exhibit of African penguins (warm-weather penguins…who knew?). "They're not afraid to speak their minds and just go with the flow. I just try to treat them like a little brother or little sister – you know, mess around with them a little bit, play around and just try to enjoy the day."
The Children's Home operates a variety of child-focused and family-centered programs throughout the Tampa Bay area. Since its inception in 1892, the organization has placed 6,000 children with loving families and assisted more than 25,000 children who have suffered abuse, abandonment or neglect. The Buccaneers and their players have had a long and satisfying relationship with the Children's Home, and it was a natural fit for Simms when he first developed the Wild Adventures program in 2006. Last year, the group visited Busch Gardens and the Florida Aquarium.
Wild Adventures also went to Big Cat Rescue last year. It is the only venue that the program is repeating this year, probably because Simms has a soft spot for cats of all sizes. His family has two at home – Deuce and Rome – and he clearly prefers that interaction over warthogs, snakes or insects.
Towards the end of the Lowry Park tour, the group did get close to a cuddly-looking kinkajou, and the penguins at the beginning of the day were undeniably cute. But even if every animal on the tour had featured fangs, scales or vomiting tricks, this Wild Adventure would have been well worth the trip.
"The biggest thing is, it's a good time," said Simms. "It's great for me personally because I love kids and I love animals. It's a great combination. And hopefully it teaches them something while they're enjoying themselves."