Northwest Trek horticulturalist Jake Pool helps a Weyerhaeuser student load a pumpkin onto the truck.   Photos/Northwest Trek
Northwest Trek horticulturalist Jake Pool helps a Weyerhaeuser student load a pumpkin onto the truck. Photos/Northwest Trek
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The Weyerhaeuser Elementary students had a marvelous time last Friday at Northwest Trek, harvesting pumpkins they'd grown at school from starts and then hiding them for animals to find Animals such ass as wolves, bears and otters - So fun

Six third-graders from Eatonville’s Weyerhaeuser Elementary School went to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park Last week and got the chance to harvest pumpkins they themselves grew at school and planted at Northwest Trek last June.

The six third graders, along with six second graders, watched animals at the wildlife park enjoy their pumpkins as both enrichment and food. At the same time, the students learned about nutrition, wildlife and science.

“This is an amazing thing for these kids to do,” commented Jake Pool, Northwest Trek’s horticulturalist, who had offered the experience to the school as part of its gardening program. “But it’s also great for our animals as enrichment and nutrition.”

The Weyerhaeuser Elementary gardening program is run by parent volunteers including Pool’s wife Kristin. (The Pools’ son Blake and daughter Brooklyn are students there.) It teaches kids about growing their own food – and this year, Jake Pool suggested they also grow food for their animal neighbors.

“Every year we give pumpkins to our animals as part of the Pumpkin Chomp ‘n’ Stomp event,” Pool explains. “But I noticed that some of the carving pumpkins weren’t very nutritious.”

So Pool researched pumpkin and squash varieties on the USDA website, picking those that had plenty of nutrients and sugar for taste. Second-graders at Weyerhaeuser planted the seeds in spring in their school greenhouse. Meanwhile, teen volunteers from the Bush School in Seattle prepped a pumpkin patch, covering grass with cardboard and Northwest Trek-created compost.

The then-second graders planted and mulched their starts at the wildlife park in June.

Four months later, six of the now-third-grade students –plus six new second-graders - returned to find a fully grown pumpkin patch ready to harvest – and feed to some very interested animals. After securing the wolves, keeper Haley Withers carefully led a group around the habitat, pointing out logs and other hiding spots.

Then, back on the visitor side, the fun began.

“Look, he’s got my pumpkin!” called one boy excitedly, as a wolf discovered a white pumpkin.
“He’s rolling it like a soccer ball!” “He’s got it in his mouth!”

“This is really fun for our wolves, too,” said Withers, looking on and answering animal questions. “They’re smelling new people on those pumpkins, that’s all new and interesting to them.”

Keepers also gave pumpkins to Hawthorne the grizzly bear cub – who ran almost immediately to his favorite log to chomp it up – and to the otters, who happily played with the floating vegetables.

Over in the Northwest Trek pumpkin patch, the students got to work harvesting the rest of the 150-odd pumpkins to be given to animals during Pumpkin Chomp ‘n’ Stomp on Oct. 27 and throughout the winter. Pool chose a huge variety: big orange Cinderellas, pale white Caspers, small pear-shaped yellow squash with fingers of green, stripy green minis and an orange/yellow hybrid that seeded itself.

There were also “Naked” pumpkins – named for the lack of hulls around their seed, allowing smaller animals to better access the nutrients inside.
“I wanted to connect it back to nutrition for animals and humans,” said Pool.

“This is such a good science opportunity,” said Weyerhaeuser Elementary School principal Linn Ames, snipping pumpkin stems. “We’re a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) school, so this is a perfect chance to combine science with nature. It’s like Northwest Trek is an extension of our school!”

But student Tymbre Green summed it up best. Asked how she felt about seeing her tiny seed grow from start to pumpkin, and finally to animal enrichment, her eyes grew big.
“It’s fun,” she said softly.

Northwest Trek animals get pumpkin treats and enrichments at Pumpkin Chomp ‘n’ Stomp all day Oct. 27. The event is free with admission.

Northwest Trek is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The wildlife park is closed Mondays through Thursdays during the fall and winter months, except for special holiday and Winter Break openings.
For more information, go to www.nwtrek.org.

Northwest Trek, accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is a 723-acre zoological park dedicated to conservation, education and recreation by displaying, interpreting and researching native Northwest wildlife and their natural habitats. The wildlife park is a facility of Metro Parks Tacoma and is located 35 miles southeast of Tacoma off State Highway 161.