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One big blink was all it took

WHAT a pretty color!'' I heard myself chirping as our son chased a bright green garter snake down the driveway. ``We like snakes, don't we?'' We do?

Three years ago, I certainly didn't. Back then, I would have clung in horror to the garage door until the little darling slithered out of sight. I'm not sure what would have happened if we'd crossed paths among the petunias.

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But that was three eventful years ago, before we had a budding naturalist in the house. Now that young son is walking, talking, and stalking everything that moves, faint-hearted Mom is constantly being challenged to come up with encouraging responses to his various finds.

``Lovely centipede, sweetie. Look at all the (gulp) hairy little feet.''

``My, what a big spider. Maybe he'd like to go play with his friends again.'' (Just as soon as he's finished chasing the neighbor's German shepherd over the back fence.)

It's not that I have anything personal against things that go bump in the night and scurry in the daylight. I'm just a little squeamish about having them dropped, unannounced, in my lap.

Jonathan, on the other hand, thinks there's nothing finer than to spend a morning in the garden petting worms. This summer he had his own colony of wigglies down by the compost pile, and there he sat by the hour, helping them over formidable clumps of mud and talking to them in the tenderest of tones.

He occasionally brought his favorites up to the back door to meet Mom, and I did my best to be friendly.

That's not to say that I invited them in for juice and cookies, as he would have liked, but toward the end of the summer the worms and I had begun to share some reasonably pleasant moments together. Thanks, in part, to the screen door that separated us.

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I can't yet say that I share Jonathan's hands-on enthusiasm for the more slippery animal kingdoms, but because of his patient example I think I'm making progress in some phyla. I'm a little less hesitant these days about asking the children's librarian for picture books on caterpillars and moths, and when I come upon a daddy-long-legs on the kitchen counter, I don't screech quite as shrilly as I used to.

As for bigger game, however, there's still a lot to learn.

When some friends invited us on a family outing to a local wildlife refuge recently, Jonathan and I spent several weeks reading up on the animals we hoped to meet there and practicing our petting and feeding skills on his grandmother's less-than-amused cats.

The day for the visit finally arrived, and as we pulled into the parking lot our friends announced that we'd be meeting their ``adopted'' wild animal, a fat and glossy skunk named Tuxedo.

Jonathan was thrilled, Mom smiled bravely, and into the barn we strode. As it turned out, Tuxedo was a true gentleman who opted to sleep through the hellos and get-acquainted pats.

One introduction down, Jonathan took me by the hand and led me over to the other cages. We lingered briefly beside a family of disgruntled opossums, skirted our way around a pair of wary kestrels, and then turned a corner to come face to face with a lovely stuffed owl perched on a remarkably realistic log.

I'd never seen one in such mint condition, and I peered in for a good stare.

One big, slow-motion blink was all it took to send Mom into a two-foot leap and to set Jonathan hooting with delight.

Marlin Perkins would have loved it.

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