BAY VILLAGE - Beginning as a "bathtub museum" in the home of its founder, today's Lake Erie Nature and Science Center offers a much-expanded view of the natural world.
The original home-based nature specimens - such as bunnies in the backyard, mourning doves in the basement and turtles in the bathtub - have grown into a 22,500-square-foot facility that attracts more than 180,000 visitors per year from all 50 states and 13 countries.
"We have free admission seven days a week, which is a big attraction for families looking for something educational to do," said Executive Director Catherine Temko. "We give people an opportunity to learn about the natural world, the environment and the universe through our planetarium.
"We teach people about the outdoors, especially the Lake Erie watershed. We always offer something new and exciting."
Local people who visit often return frequently, she said.
Since 1987, the number of programs offered has increased from 100 to more than 2,300, involving more than 51,500 people.
Visitors can walk through an outdoor zoo-like display of wildlife. Most are native to Ohio, such as a red fox or a bald eagle, but some are from other parts of the world, such as a 9-foot boa constrictor.
There is a pond with a bridge and a duck exhibit as well as an area for small mammals.
Indoors, visitors can browse through a display of native and exotic aquatic creatures, or watch honey bees in an active hive.
Behind the scenes, the staff of the Kenneth A. Scott Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Program takes in about 1,000 injured and ill wild animals each year and cares for them, with the goal of returning them to the wild. The rehab center has been in place since the center's inception. To find out more, visit the Chirp and Chatter Blog, which recounts information on the center's rehab patients.
On a wall just inside the door, a three-dimensional map of Lake Erie without water teaches young and old about the bottom of the lake and the part they can't see by looking at the surface.
"That actually depicts the natural history of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes and the importance of Great Lakes to our region," Temko said.
Children can crawl through a large tree trunk as parents and grandparents pick them up after preschool classes.
"That's an old maple tree that came from Lake County and has been with us for more than 30 years," Temko said. "It is a real tree and kids love to crawl through it.
"We have a wonderful preschool program where we give children who are very young the chance to learn about nature."
Older children or a Scout troop might tour the center on a field trip, learning about native wildlife, its relationship to the Great Lakes and its connection to the larger world.
During summer, there are camps for older children.
Programs for everyone are scheduled in the Walter R. Schuele Planetarium.
An example of programs that might cost $1 or $2, the planetarium offers Twinkle Tots, an introduction to the planetarium for children younger than 3; Mainly Mammals, Reptile Revue and Animals, various animal encounters for all ages; Stellar Stars for ages 3-7; and Monthly SkyQuest, an in-depth star show.
There also are weekly "Sunday Under the Stars" programs, telescope viewing outside twice a month and monthly "SkyQuest" programs on various stellar topics such a black holes and "Where, Oh Where Has My Little Pluto Gone?"
The center is in Huntington Reservation Park, one of the Cleveland Metroparks, and a short distance south of Lake Erie's southern shore, at 28728 Wolf Road, Bay Village.
It is affiliated with the metroparks but operates as a separate entity.
"We have access to the whole Huntington Reservation Park," she said. "It's our outdoor classroom."
The area provides space for stargazing, hikes on the park's trails and programs such as family fishing day.
The center was founded in 1945 by Dr. Elberta W. Fleming, who believed it was important children learn from experiences and discovery because the lessons they learned in science through nature were essential for their future, according to the center's website.
Before the center existed, neighborhood children took injured animals to Fleming, and she discovered wildlife provided a teaching tool for people of all ages.
"To be able to see up close, and sometimes touch, a real living and breathing animal created a fun, hands-on and powerful learning experience for the children," the website states. "So, in 1945, she began Lake Erie Nature and Science Center with a meager display of bunnies in her backyard, mourning doves in her basement, turtles in her bathtub and nature specimens throughout her home. Hence, the 'Bathtub Museum' was started."
Five years later, the center was incorporated by Fleming based on the principles that learning is fun and children learn best by doing.
"The charter states the non-profit organization will connect people of all ages to nature in order to motivate natural curiosities and creative abilities, encourage an understanding of cultural diversity, and instill civic responsibilities by developing a desire to conserve our natural resources," the website states.
Today, in addition to inviting people to visit the center, staff members take a traveling wildlife outreach program to schools, Scout groups, church groups, civic organizations, hospitals, libraries, festivals, senior facilities "and just about any place which will provide us an audience" to further the mission of teaching people about wildlife.
There is no admission fee, and the center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
"We're one of the only nonprofit centers in the region that has free admission," she said. "We are an independent nonprofit organization to make our budget and hire our staff."