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EcoAdventures in Millersville adopts turtles saved from apparent international smuggling scheme

Hatchling diamondback terrapins were rescued in Alaska by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents

The chorus of children at EcoAdventures in Millersville let out a collective “Aawww” as the first of four tiny diamondback terrapins, a little larger than a quarter, was taken out of its shipping container after the long flight from Anchorage, Alaska.

The hatchling Maryland state reptiles were far from home when they were rescued from a would-be turtle smuggler hoping to sell them in the lucrative market in China, where turtles of all sorts are considered delicacies. They were among the scores of confiscated turtles cared for by an Anchorage museum.

The children in the after-school program at the year-old EcoAdventures prepared to welcome the new additions to facility’s collection, which includes crocodiles, snakes and spiders.

They fashioned a “Welcome Home Terrapins” banner and helped prepare a new home for them in an aquarium. They all huddled around as four of the children were selected to place the terrapins — oh, so carefully — in their new home, one by one.

“Let’s call him Girdle,” one boy said.

“Gurgle?” said another.

“Yes, Girdle,” responded the first.

“Yertle the turtle,” another child chimed in.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents found that the would-be smuggler had four different species of turtles hidden in snow boots and other places. They were confiscated, and most have been sent to new homes like EcoAdventure, an ecological education center off Interstate 97.

Now the four terrapins will be permanent residents. Since the quartet of Malaclemys terrapin were apparently hatched and grown for commercial purposes, “They can’t be returned to the wild because we can’t disturb the gene pool,” said Brady Barr, a veteran National Geographic Society herpetologist and the host of several television productions centered on wildlife around the globe.

The species, which has several subspecies, is found in the wild in New England, down the Eastern Seaboard and around the Gulf of Mexico.

The terrapin is proposed for protection under the 40-year-old Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but is not currently listed as a species threatened with extinction.

Smuggling turtles and other species is potentially a violation of the Lacey Act or the Endangered Species Act. “It depends on the species,” said Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Penalties for civil violations run up to $10,000 under Lacey and up to $25,000 under the Endangered Species Act. Criminal penalties can mean larger fines and up to five years in prison.

Shire said smuggling to China comes in waves but has been rising because of a shortage of turtles there, mostly due to poaching. The payoff can be hundreds of dollars a turtle.

“There is no end to the places where smugglers will conceal wildlife in an attempt to hide them from inspectors,” Shire said. “They hide them in boots, socks, false bottoms of suitcases and boxes. Or in crates, labeled as other materials.”

Recently a man was arrested in Detroit with 51 live turtles in his pants, taped to his legs and nether regions.

Shire would not give details of the case in Anchorage, saying the investigation is still underway. One matter being investigated, he said, is whether the smuggling attempt was organized crime or an individual act.

At EcoAdventures, Barr and his wife, Mei Len Sanchez-Barr, a marine biologist and native of Costa Rica, run a program that includes Scout sleepovers, after-school sessions, a summer camp experience, and daytime activities like Mommy and Me.

The company also takes all sorts of critters to schools, so that students can get to know them.

The collection includes Gigantor, a 22-foot, 300-pound reticulated python, and Jefe, a Morelet’s crocodile. There are also Burmese hedgehogs, an opossum and spiders.

“I am convinced, and research shows, that if children can see, touch and feel, they will retain more knowledge,” Barr said. “That is what we are all about here.”

EcoAdventures’ 3,500-square-foot headquarters is at a small business park abutting the headwaters of the Severn River. “There are 1,500 acres back there for us to explore,” Barr said. “The river is only a few feet wide, and running clear with trout and other species.”

EcoAdventures is holding a terrapin-naming contest. Visiting members of the public are invited to submit names. Check the website at for the best time to stop by.

Dr. Brady Barr interviewed by FOX 4 News Dallas-Fort Worth

EcoAdventures3WBy Regina Verow

On National Geographic’s “Dangerous Encounters with Dr. Brady Barr,” world-renowned herpetologist and Anne Arundel County resident Brady Barr interacts with some of the planet’s wildest creatures. Now kids can join Barr for some amazing wild animal experiences right in Millersville, MD.

At the new EcoAdventures founded by Barr’s wife, Mei Len Sanchez-Barr, kids can hang out with a 20-foot, reticulated python, see scorpions up close, pet an American alligator and learn about environmental stewardship. EcoAdventures promotes positive interaction with the natural world while inspiring families to make a difference for the planet.

Tucked away in an unassuming building in a Millersville business park, EcoAdventures is a hands-on educational center that allows families to experience exotic and local animals up close and learn about conservation of natural habitats. It offers a wide range of interactive experiences from drop-in events and classes to after-school programming to birthday parties to training for teachers.

Sanchez-Barr founded the company several years ago and started offering classes and camps out of the Severna Park Community EcoAdventuresBarrWCenter and Kinderfarm Park. The programs featured the live, exotic creatures she and Barr kept in the basement of their Anne Arundel County home. As the business grew, it became time to move the animals and the center’s offerings into a bigger, permanent space. Last December, EcoAdventures opened its doors in Millersville.

The Barrs believe passionately that creative, positive and personal experiences with wildlife can inspire people to make a difference for the planet. Brady Barr is proof of that.

“I grew up in Indiana and was lucky to have dedicated educators and parents who championed an interactive classroom,” he says. He credits the environmental field trips he took in school and interacting with animals such as rabbits and turtles in the classroom as fueling his interest in the field.

Known as the leading herpetologist in the world, Barr was the first person to capture and study all 23 species of crocodilians in the wild. He has also hosted over 100 wildlife documentaries for the National Geographic channel and appeared on such shows as Oprah, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The View. He’s also a master storyteller and author. Now he has two elementary-aged children who are experiencing more interaction with animals than even he did growing up.

EcoAdventures2WHands-on learning

EcoAdventures is part zoo, part classroom.

“It’s very powerful to get up close and personal. It can change a child’s life,” Barr explains. He tells the story of one boy who asked how many toes a turtle had. Barr decided he had two options: answer the question quickly and move on, or give the boy a chance to find out for himself. After the pair climbed into the rainforest river enclosure, Barr securely held the large snapping turtle and the boy counted toes.

“He will never forget that experience,” Barr says. “It’s one thing to read about something or see a picture. It’s another thing to line kids up and have them hold a 20-foot python.”

For Barr, a lot of the energy behind EcoAdventures is about giving back and empowering kids.

“Kids can change the world,” he says. Throughout his career, Barr has asked kids for help with challenges he has faced. He estimates that 20 to 30 of the ideas he has implemented in his field research were generated by kids.

Barr once told a group of children how difficult it was to study crocodiles in the wild because they won’t let humans near them. One young boy suggested that a crocodile costume might allow Barr to get really close. Barr took that suggestion back to National Geographic and a custom croc costume was designed, allowing Barr to get closer to crocodiles in the wild.

Passing on the passionEcoAdventures6W

Sanchez-Barr says the best part of the venture for her is the opportunity to “see these kids be themselves and really enjoy their animal passions.”

Carson Brindgar, a rising ninth grader from Severna Park and budding herpetologist, started attending an EcoAdventures’ after-school program last winter.

“The first time I walked through the door, I couldn’t believe how awesome it was here,” he says. “They have animals, like a blue tongue skink, that I’d never seen in person before.”

Within three months, the staff at EcoAdventures asked him to become a junior assistant. Now he is learning how to handle and care for the animals and how to talk to people about conservation. He has spent the majority of his summer at the facility.

“I love it here,” Brindgar notes. “Every kid who walks in here has a smile on their face.”

EcoAdventures is located at 216 Najoles Road, Suite 600, Millersville. Visit EcoAdventures website  to learn more about its offerings and to sign up for events.

EcoAdventures5WExploring EcoAdventures’ offerings

EcoAdventures has three activity rooms, each with its own habitat theme.

The Underwater Cave Room is where arts and crafts and messy experiments take place. Murals adorn the walls and several aquariums feature local and exotic animals. The African Room is located upstairs and is mostly used for corporate events and photo opportunities. Visitors can have their picture taken with an exotic animal in front of a screen that makes it look like they are in the rainforest, on an African safari or even underwater.

The Rainforest Room, the largest of the three, is where much of the programming and animal encounters take place. The python, Gigantor, lives in this room (don’t worry, he’s well contained) and an enclosure mimics the edge of a riverside where a crocodile, an alligator or a large snapping turtle may be hanging out. The Rainforest Room hosts everything from toddler drop-in classes to after-school programs to evening family lectures.

EcoAdventures offers an array of educational experience including drop-in days, Friday night drop-off programs, Rainforest yoga classes, family fun nights, sleep overs in the Rainforest, guest speakers, field trips, camps and school outreach. A Therapeutic Explorers program pairs a certified special education teacher and children with special needs. Teacher training sessions are held twice a month to encourage teachers to add more conservation concepts into the classroom. And soon, EcoAdventures hopes to offer family ecotourism trips to places such as the Florida Keys and Costa Rica.


EcoAdventures Brings Exotic Creatures To Anne Arundel County

Brian Lancione

February 5, 2014

EcoAdventures owner Mei Len Sanchez-Barr, who was joined by co-owners Dr. Brady Barr and Melissa Van Gieson and a group of well-wishers, cut the ribbon on January 23 to officially open their new facility located at 216 Najoles Road, Suite 600 in Millersville. Co-owner Dr. Eric Van Gieson was not present for the event.