NEWARK — Tora “The Tornado” visited St. Michael School Dec. 19, accompanied by two handlers, a wheeled crate full of straw and a pervasive popcorn-like odor.
Curious as to what kind of creature Tora is? So were all the students.
As a leashed Tora waited patiently in the hall before entering a classroom full of third-graders, the children could be heard excitedly guessing what kind of animal they were about to see.
“Is it a camel?” one child asked.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a bobcat,” another said.
Neither guess was right. When Tora waddled into the classroom, the students learned that their visitor was a binturong, a large, furry mammal native to the dense forests of Southeast Asia.
As Tora wandered between the students sitting in a semicircle on the floor, her handler, Marlene Conti, held the end of Tora’s leash and told the students a little bit about the binturong, which is an endangered species. Conti is St. Michael’s art teacher, but she also is the volunteer coordinator of World of Wildlife Educational Encounters, a Marion-based nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching children about wildlife through hands-on experiences with live, exotic animals.
WOWEE volunteers often visit schools with some of the organization’s 300 exotic animals and occasionally stage live animal shows for the general public. WOWEE hopes that children will develop a sense of wonder, affection and respect for wildlife after interacting with the animals.
“I don’t know any other time kids get to be exposed to this kind of thing. It’s just a wonderful exposure,” said Sally Reaves, director of WOWEE.
Conti doesn’t have any art classes at the school on Tuesdays, so she tries to bring an exotic animal to the school at least one Tuesday a month, she said.
The organization has five of the 300 binturongs in the United States, Conti told the students. Binturongs have thick, black fur that is very coarse, and many people think their strong, natural odor smells kind of like popcorn, she added. Their long tails are strong and prehensile, which means they can be used to grasp or wrap around objects.
“Her tail can be almost like an arm,” Conti said, noting that Tora also can balance on her tail while standing on her hind legs. Third-grader A.J. Fitch helped her demonstrate this by standing up and holding in front of him one of Tora’s favorite treats, a grape. The rest of the class watched as Tora stood up on her hind legs, stretched out and took the grape from A.J.’s hand.
“See how well she can balance her weight? Sometimes if I take her hand she’ll walk with me,” Conti added.
Most binturongs’ long whiskers are white, stiff and straight, but Tora’s are a little different.
“Tora’s whiskers are not actually straight. That’s how we can tell her from all the rest,” Conti explained.
Unlike wild binturongs, Tora and WOWEE’s other four binturongs are declawed. Binturongs can’t retract their claws like cats can, so if they weren’t declawed it would be very easy for them to accidentally hurt their handlers while playing, Conti said.
“It would be like playing with Freddy Krueger,” Reaves added. “All of ours are declawed, but it doesn’t impair their climbing ability at all.”
Tora is very used to playing with humans and being handled, she said.
“That’s not how they appear in the wild by any means,” Reaves said as she pointed to Tora, who was sprawled on the floor with her belly exposed. “You wouldn’t want to approach one in the wild.”
Tora, who weighs about 60 pounds, is very laid-back and likes to nap or eat fruit when she’s not playing with her handlers, Conti said. Binturongs also are very curious, and they have a habit of getting into everything, Reaves noted.
“It’s the last thing you want loose in your house. Your house will be trashed,” she said.
Binturongs living in captivity, like 5-year-old Tora, can live up to 30 years, Conti said, but binturongs living in the wild usually have a much shorter lifespan.
Seventh-graders Darwin Morales and Jack Venoski, who had visited with Tora earlier in the day, said they were surprised that Tora’s whiskers were so stiff and crooked and that her tail was so strong. Fellow seventh-grader Mary Rose Costello said she was surprised and saddened to learn that binturongs are endangered.
A.J. and his classmate, Eric Nowark, said they enjoyed Tora’s visit to their classroom.
“She’s very furry and likes to eat grapes,” A.J. said. “I think she was a really nice animal.”