Belfast Telegraph

Kids will love and learn from really wild show

Spiders, snakes, scorpions and frogs... Belfast man Karl Hamilton is passionate about educating the public about these amazing creatures. He talks to Linda Stewart about his band of minibeasts and birds

A gargoyle gecko
A gargoyle gecko

Some people are lucky enough to be able to turn a hobby into a career - and Karl Hamilton is one of them.

An ecologist with a degree from Queen's University Belfast, the Belfast man has always surrounded himself with a small menagerie of minibeasts, reptiles and birds - and nine years ago he decided to launch his own zoo-to-you environmental education business.

And you only have to see the crowd of fascinated youngsters - and adults - clustered around the Mantella stall at any family event to see how successful that decision has been.

The company offers educational visits, birthday parties, event entertainment, nature study programme and natural history services, all featuring a fascinating array of critters, from tarantulas, scorpions and snakes to tree frogs and owls.

"Like most children, I was fascinated with the natural world, with birds and animals and the outdoors - I'm not really an office person. I was always outdoors and getting mucked up and looking at things," Karl says.

"I've always kept things like birds of prey, snakes, stick insects and things like that, like a lot of kids do, only with me it continued into adult life."

Karl previously worked as biodiversity officer at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Castle Espie in Co Down and that experience of environmental education played a part in his decision to set up Mantella.

"You meet a lot of like-minded people and it was a great interface where you can bring families and children and school groups face to face with nature," he explains.

"It seems to be the natural interest with very young children and those of primary school age to have that natural curiosity about the natural world.

"And while we can bring some amazing animals to you, we also work with native species as well. We try to encourage children to go and see their native animals on their doorstep, such as birds of prey and minibeasts and mammals and so on.

"They can see amazing animals from all over the world but if they keep their eyes and ears open, they can see all sorts right on their doorstep.

"The classic example would be the peregrine falcon - we have almost 100 pairs in Northern Ireland.

"It's the fastest animal on earth and it's right here in Northern Ireland, so you don't have to go to Africa or the Amazon rainforest to see these things - they can be found just outside your front door if you keep your eyes and ears open."

A Bateleur eagle
A Bateleur eagle

Mantella aims to showcase as many of the many animal groups as possible, including stick insects, cockroaches, scorpions giant millipedes and tarantulas among the invertebrates, as well as snakes and lizards representing the reptiles and tree frogs representing the amphibians.

"We have birds of prey as well," Karl says. "We don't work with too many small furries, but we do work with hedgehogs. But we can't work with fish because they don't do well being transported around Northern Ireland in a car."

At a show like Pet Expo NI, Mantella has two elements - the static element, with animals in natural enclosures. "That's more for the adults who want to look but not touch," Karl says.

And there's also the hands-on aspect, for people who want to get up close and personal with the animals. Animal welfare is key and the animals are rotated, each only being brought out for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

"It's a chance to look at how a tarantula moves, to see how a snake moves and see a peregrine falcon up really close, to look at its colours and adaptations," Karl says.

"But we're constantly monitoring the animal to see if it's healthy, is it getting tired, is it showing signs of stress, is it healthy and happy? We're also monitoring people's behaviour - are they happy being in close proximity to the animals?"

When they visit schools, it's straight into the educational elements, he says.

"If they're studying the rainforest, we will look at how snakes move, how they climb up into trees, how they navigate, how they find their prey. We're really trying to stoke up an interest in looking at the animals and looking at their behaviour."

A key part of what Mantella does is encourage children in STEM activities, whether they're doing a rainforest project at school or studying minibeasts.

A long eared hedgehog
A long eared hedgehog

"Through doing some events at Castle Espie, for example, with snakes on St Patrick's Day and events with birds of prey, I quickly saw how easy it is to enthuse children and parents about the natural world," Karl says.

"A big focus in the last few years is science. Science isn't as well represented in primary school as when we were in primary school - it has become amalgamated with technology to become STEM, so we really push the science side of things."

It's a chance to encourage pupils to look at careers in science, whether it's biology, physics or geography, he says.

"We go to a lot of STEM events and we would be saying to pupils, if you're interested in these sorts of things it could become your job. There are really great science careers and they can take you all the way round the world."

To find out more about Mantella, visit ecomantella.co.uk or chat to staff on the Mantella stand at the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo sponsored by We Are Vertigo. Get your tickets now here or pay at the door on the day.

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