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justine wettschreck/Daily Globe Education Specialist Ashley Verdeck of the Zoo Express holds out Spike the bearded dragon for children to pet Saturday during Rushmore Pride and Heritage Days.

Rushmore shows its Pride and Heritage

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RUSHMORE -- It's not every day that a person gets the chance to pet a bearded dragon. Especially one named Spike. But a couple dozen kids who attended Rushmore's Pride and Heritage Days can claim that honor, along with meeting Ellie the tortoise, Lucy the ball python, Dagwood the chinchilla, and, yes, even Sonic the hedgehog.

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The Great Plains Zoo/Sanford Children's Hospital Zoo Express van was greeted with enthusiasm Saturday when it arrived at the festival. Education Specialist Ashley Verdeck kept the kids entertained and learning as she introduced, one by one, the members of her menagerie.

Holding up Ellie the tortoise, she asked the children what they thought Ellie's favorite food might be. Shouted out answers included bananas, lettuce and oranges.

"She loves all of those," Verdeck said. "But her favorite food is carrots. She really loves carrots."

When Verdeck asked the children what they thought might want to eat Ellie, the kids were instantly intrigued. Tigers? Lions? Bears?

Possibly, Verdeck admitted, but birds would have the best chance of getting Ellie out of her shell. The tortoise, who is 11 years old and has a brother named Teddy, could live to be 50 to 60 years old.

While Verdeck returned Ellie to the van, she asked the kids what animal they thought she would bring out next.

"There are eight of them in the van," Verdeck reported.

Would she next bring out a snake? A monkey? An elephant?

"If there was an elephant in there, she wouldn't have eight animals," one little boy decided after looking over the size of the van.

He was right. There wasn't an elephant. But Verdeck brought out Spike, the bearded dragon lizard, instead.

"He can't blow fire, but he is pretty cool," she announced.

The lizard, a native of Australia, has protective spikes that get hard when Spike is threatened.

"He knows me, and knows the sound of my voice," Verdeck said. "But if he's scared, he puffs up with air and his spikes get hard and poky."

Spike, who is eight years old, likes the same food Ellie does, but his favorite food, Verdeck said, is crickets. He gets crickets as treats every Tuesday and Thursday, and catches them by using the sticky end on his long tongue.

The kids also got a chance to meet Jimmy the parrot, Chino the screech owl, Rocky the box turtle and several unnamed hissing cockroaches.

Verdeck and the Zoo Express attend community events on a regular basis, and also do presentations at schools, daycares, nursing homes and other small venues.

"There are always lots of questions," she said.

Those questions may vary depending on the age range of her audience, but all ages seem very interested in the critters and their habits.

"These are animals people don't get to see all the time," Verdeck said. "They're pretty curious about them."

Other Rushmore events included a car show, kid's activities, a craft show, a kiddie tractor pull and Little League baseball.

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