With all of the visitors, special events and education programs at Ijams Nature Center, it sometimes feels like a zoo, and that doesn’t even include all of the animal ambassadors who call the Ijams Visitor Center home!

This nonprofit nature center is the residence of about 40 wild animals, such as turtles, raptors, fish…even a tarantula! They cannot be released because they would not survive in the wild due to injury or habituation (i.e., becoming reliant on and used to humans). Ijams cares for these critters, but they all have jobs: as part of the staff, they help visitors learn about the wonders of nature.

One of Ijams Nature Center’s most popular staff members is Opal, a 3.5-year-old Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). This geriatric marsupial joined Ijams in May 2019 after her mother and siblings were killed by a car. The wildlife rehabilitator who cared for her thought she might have some nerve damage and was concerned that Opal might be too attached to people (she napped on heads and under ponytails), so she came to live at Ijams. Opal is a goodwill ambassador for opossums, which eat thousands of ticks and other insects. Opal loves avocadoes and bananas, and will never turn down a grape! She may be old for an opossum (they only live 3-5 years), but she still enchants everyone she meets.

Jack, an adult red phase Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio), is one of Ijams’ newest ambassadors, joining the nature center after being hit by a car in 2022. Ijams staff and vets believe Jack is a male because he is smaller than an adult female. There are two phases of screech owl, red (reddish brown, or rufous) and gray. While he broke his wing and cannot fly, he is an otherwise healthy, happy owl! While named “screech,” these owls trill, whinny, hoot softly and sometimes bark (a loud, sharp call indicating agitation or alarm).

Gramps is a male gray rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides). Formerly identified as black rat snakes, these East Tennessee residents were renamed several years ago because the species more closely matches the DNA of the gray rat snake. Gramps has lived at the nature center since 1989. At 33, he is one of the oldest gray rat snakes in captivity! Gramps is docile and curious, and he helps people learn how beneficial his species can be.

Box TurtleBlondie, a female albino Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), was found as a hatchling near Ijams in 2009. Her albinism would have made it hard for her to hide from predators, find food due to bad eyesight and protect herself from the sun. While she can’t be in the sun for long, she still needs Vitamin D. You might see her “sunbathing” on the Visitor Center plaza with an Ijams staff member, who covers her sensitive eyes while she soaks up a few rays!

It costs more than $20,000 annually to care for Ijams’ animal ambassadors. If you’d like to help support these wild friends, consider adopting an animal! Your donation of $25 or $150 will help feed and care for your animal for one year. For $25, you’ll receive a card with your adopted animal’s story as well as your choice of a magnet or an ornament featuring your friend. For $150, you’ll become a Very Important Parent (VIP) and will receive those things PLUS an hourlong behind-the-scenes tour where you and up to three others will get to meet your animal and others, as well as learn how Ijams cares for them.

Visit Ijams.org/animal-ambassadors to meet more of the animal ambassadors and learn how to support them!