The Value of Exhibit Animals at Nature Centers

OwlTouching a live turtle, smelling skunkweed, or seeing a beaver up close for the first time is a personal, memorable, and educational experience.

At Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly, Va., we have three live birds of prey that we use for programming, and standing a few feet from a raptor that most people only see circling in the sky or hear on a faraway tree branch can be an eye-popping experience. We want people to have these meaningful and memorable experiences, and housing exhibit animals is one way to do that.

Caring for a raptor is a little more complicated than providing a home for a parakeet. There are challenges, and chief among them is meeting the federal and commonwealth legal requirements for their care and use. We can’t just catch an animal and put it on display. By law, wildlife belongs to Virginia, and we must have permits from the commonwealth in order to care for and display animals. Jim Dewing, ECLP’s Resource Manager and Interpretive Naturalist, has the personal permits and permissions that are required to hold, house, and display these unique animals.

Our use of the birds for interpretation requires care and a range of humane needs, and those needs may include issues related to an injury that may prevent a rehabilitated animal from being released back into its wild habitat. We have to consider the safety of the birds, the public, and the staff. These are, after all, predators. There are ethical concerns in keeping and confining live animals for interpretive purposes, and we address those with established policies and industry standards that guide how, when, and in what way we use the animals. Once again, there are state and county regulations governing these issues, and each of our staffed sites has procedures in place that can go beyond these requirements. In addition, our care of domestic animals, such as the cows, pigs and chickens at Frying Pan Farm Park, follow county Animal Control Services guidelines.

We use exhibit animals:

  • To support summer, spring break, and school holiday camps
  • To enrich animal club activities
  • To support traditional programming
  • For school and public outreach
  • To support agency summer camp staff training
  • At campfire and wagon ride programs
  • To support home school classes
  • For special community events such as Springfest
  • As tools for first aid and safe handling training of animals by Animal Control personnel.

In addition to the priorities of care and interpretation, we create a business model to ensure the animals help us earn enough revenue to pay for their care so that they are of value to each park’s overall mission and objectives. Before assuming responsibility for an animal, a park has to ensure hosting the animal meets the site’s objectives effectively, efficiently, and ethically.

One of those objectives is interpretation – personal, memorable, educational experiences that bring us closer to natural resources, makes us more comfortable outdoors, and helps everyone to become better stewards of the natural resources that keep us healthy and the cultural resources that help reveal who we are.


Author John Shafer is a Naturalist and the Manager of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly. Call ECLP at 703-631-0013 for information about programs that include raptor interpretation. A version of this story was published in the NAI Region 2 publication Chesapeake Chat.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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