Working in nature

When Eric Ferrell accepted his groundskeeper job at the Dallas ISD Environmental Education Center 10 years ago, he never imagined the connection he would make with nature and with the animals housed at the center. It was a complete surprise to him to see this new perspective of the world reveal itself before him. 

The Environmental Education Center, which Ferrell described as a hidden gem in the district, is surrounded by trees and what he calls “peace and serenity” away from the hectic life of the city. Ferrell’s work makes it possible for thousands of district students who visit the center every year to experience the natural science in a practical way.

The EEC, a 500-acre district facility located in Seagoville, includes more than four miles of nature trails; a 26,000-square-foot facility with interactive exhibits; a 70-seat ecology theater; four science laboratories; a live animals laboratory; outdoor classrooms; a fossil pavilion; a working barn with a variety of livestock; vegetable, flower, and herb gardens; and a recently added astronomical observatory.

Turkeys, hens and a rooster greet visitors to the center as soon as they park. The center is also home to cows, a donkey, a mule, goats, numerous reptiles and exotic fish, as well as other animals.  

“When they sense that I’m coming to them, they just get up and put their faces out there to see me,” Ferrell said. A sense of trust has developed between them, so the animals know he is going to feed them. He described the connection as an unexpected bond that he wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. 

“I am originally a city guy, but the relationship that I have with these animals here, I would never in my life thought that I’d have,” Ferrell said. “Over the years, we’ve lost certain animals because they get old and they pass and it pricks me in my heart, and I’ve shed tears.” 

Ferrell remembered a longhorn that they affectionately called Big Boy, who would sit in the pasture, and when he would see Ferrell coming would rise up and would go to the other cows and nudge them to start making their way to the barn. 

Ferrell said Big Boy was the leader and made his life easier. Every now and then, Big Boy would come up behind him and place his head on his shoulder. 

“I would see him, and I’d say, ‘Okay, Big Boy,’” Ferrell said. When Big Boy passed about six years ago, it was devastating. The center currently has another longhorn Ferrell calls Snowflake.

Ferrell said he’s even developed a heightened sense through the years and can tell when an animal is having trouble or is distressed just by the sounds they make. For example, he heard a baby goat making an unusual sound, and he went to go check on it, he found it stuck in the fence. He was able to get the baby goat safely out one horn at a time.  

Ferrell described the animals as smart, and said that Sarah, one of the cows housed in the barn, will have her stubborn days and decide to stop walking into the pasture, when Ferrell is not looking. He will tap her on her side, she will turn around and look at him, and keep walking. 

It’s Ferrell’s hands-on learning experience about animal science through this work that has allowed him to make these connections and establish trust.

In addition to watching over and taking care of the animals, as well as reporting any maintenance issues, Ferrell’s duties include working collaboratively with the teachers and other team members when the center receives students for field trips year-round. Ferrell said he also does his part to pick up trash along the trails, which include The Post Oak Preserve Trails, The Ponds and Prairie Trail, and The Oil Field Trails. 

The EEC’s  instructional programs are led by experienced teachers and naturalists, and Ferrell works with them to ensure the environment is conducive to learning and to fulfilling the center’s mission of providing teachers and students with opportunities to connect with nature while learning important science content and skills. 

During the Summer Science Enrichment Program that is currently underway at EEC, students have the opportunity to feed the animals, Ferrell said. The students are sometimes scared at first, but once they get the hang of it, they are happy to have this experience. For more information about the different services offered by the  EEC, visit their website here

All in all, Ferrell said he wouldn’t trade this opportunity to spend time in nature working with his animal friends and colleagues for the world. 

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