With each conversation he has about wildlife and the environment, Ralph Cooley feels he is grooming the next generation of enthusiasts.
He can be found volunteering at most any Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge event, and Saturday was no exception, as Cooley was the first to greet visitors during the refuge’s Wetland Day.
The day aims to celebrate and educate visitors to the refuge about wetlands. The event included a bird walk, a guided wetland tour, a display of animal and insect life in wetlands, a wetland scavenger hunt, activities and a celebration of the 115th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Cooley said the definition of a wetland is broad but includes an area saturated with water that supports vegetation and animal life. He also manages six wetlands at his Jennings County home.
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“A wetland can be called a swamp, a marsh, a bog or even a lake,” he said, adding the areas are biologically diverse. “They can be various depths.”
Cooley had a display of animal and insect life found in wetlands in bowls along with some photography. Before the event started, he dipped what he called “wetlands critters” that included leeches, crawfish, tadpoles and various insects found in wetlands.
There also was a gel sack that secured tadpoles. Cooley said tadpoles eventually will consume the gel.
“When they’re ready to get out, they will eat this protective gel,” he said, the ball clutched in his hand.
Emmanuel and Andrea Fernandez-Guzman took their son, Patricio, 15 months, to the celebration and stopped by Cooley’s display to learn about what can be found in wetlands.
“He was so nice sharing everything,” Andrea said. “I like to learn.”
The family decided to attend when they learned of it through an online group that encourages families to hike together and use the outdoors to socialize.
The three took a tour from Kris Luna, a volunteer master naturalist, on Chestnut Ridge Trail through a wetland.
“She was eager to share her knowledge,” Andrea said. “It was pretty interesting.”
The trail is a popular spot on the refuge and is on a boardwalk that meanders throughout the wetland and ends behind the visitor and education center.
Emmanuel said he enjoys being outdoors to experience the sounds of nature.
“I like being in nature and listening to the birds, and just being among the trees without noise makes it good to be out here,” he said, carrying his son.
Andrea said the refuge is a calming place, and volunteers are passionate.
“It’s pretty amazing here,” she said. “I can see people love it here and want to share everything. I like to learn.”
And there was plenty to learn. Cooley said that’s what makes his time worth it at the refuge.
“The important thing about the educational part of this is that we’re building the next generation of enthusiasts,” he said, adding there’s always a few students very interested in the annual school tours. “I can imagine in 20 or 30 years, one of those kids will be standing here talking to people.”
He also wants people to understand many wetlands have been lost throughout time in due to development of farmland, housing and business developments.
“Eighty-seven percent of Indiana’s wetlands have dried up,” he said, adding people should understand all they can about the environment. “The more we learn about the environment, no matter what it is, I think it benefits us all.”