Gus Ben David fascinates the naturalist in all of us, young and old

Landon Cormie with a Red-Spotted Newt.
Photo by Bernadette Cormie

Landon Cormie with a Red-Spotted Newt.

Outside, the soft spring Edgartown afternoon made a fanned-out peacock strut and roosters crow. All mildly stimulating, but the excitement on Saturday, April 20, at the World of Reptiles & Birds Park was inside the building, where a tiny creature swam in a small clear plastic cup.

“There now, that’s something very rare you’ve found,” a clearly delighted Gus Ben David, the animal preserve’s proprietor, told Landon Cormie, a nine-year-old Vineyard Haven naturalist. “There are four kinds of newts on the Island. Three of them are rarely seen, and that’s one of the rarest.”

Landon had found and brought a red-spotted newt to Mr. Ben David for advice on the care and feeding of the three-inch creature.

“I’ve only seen two of these on the Island. That’s quite a find,” Mr. Ben David told the delighted aspiring naturalist “They’re common in Massachusetts but not on the Island and never before in Vineyard Haven. You want to feed him earth worms, not the red ones you find in compost. Feed him earthworms, chopped real small.”

Landon nodded solemnly as generations of kids before him have done in the presence of Mr. Ben David’s encyclopedic animal knowledge. Landon’s older brother,

Lachlan, 14, a fellow naturalist, and his mom, Bernadette, looked on quietly, witnessing an important event in the life of a boy.

The brothers care for vernal animals, fish, and South American frogs in three separate tanks at home, Lachlan said.

Landon described his find carefully. “I had a net. I was looking for tadpoles and there he was, in the net,” he said.

“He’s been bugging us for two days to come over here and show it to Gus,” Ms. Cormie said.

“They are very difficult to care for,” Mr. Ben David cautioned. Considering that advice and the importance of his find, Landon made a decision. “I’m just going to keep him a few days then return him to the pond.”

Mr. Ben David has been creating these experiences for more than 40 years, for nearly 20 years at Reptile World and Bird Park. The center is located off the Edgartown Road, neighboring the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, where he worked beginning in 1969. Affiliated with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Felix Neck is visited by more than 150 avian species and by thousands of homo sapiens annually.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of the Fern and Feather summer camp at Felix Neck,” Mr. Ben David noted. “We are separate entities, but the counselors walk their kids over the trail to visit our place. We welcome them.”

Mr. Ben David looks fit and healthy, and his passion for the natural world is unabated despite treatment for a serious cancer over the past few years. “I’m feeling good now. I’ve had a rare form of cancer for which I take shots. I lost 30 pounds, but I’m putting them back on,” he chuckled.

After the Cormie family returned from a visit to the inner sanctum in which dozens of reptiles and snakes of prodigious size lurk, Mr. Ben David treats them to a public appearance of a very large resident owl that consents to emerge from her cage for a few moments to look, with stately owlish regard, over her visitors.

Mr. Ben David calls Landon to a tank in which a rare spotted salamander resides. “Islander Cory Mello brought this species in here in 1990 when he was 13,” Mr. Ben David said, gesturing to an information sheet that records details about the animal and credits Mr. Mello for the find.

The Cormies thank Mr. Ben David effusively, then troop off to visit a host of free-ranging and caged birds and to explore the vernal pools at the park.

“Yes, keeping this going is a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Mr. Ben David said, with a nod toward the budding naturalists. “It’s great to work with the kids. Adults too, but the kids really get into this.

“I think we’re going to add some more programs this summer. We have a full schedule at schools and libraries already, but I find that adults particularly like programs, so we’ll put them together and let people know about ‘em.”

Early-season returns on his visitor log include visitors from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, as well as Massachusetts.

“You know, I just thought I’d open up this week. It’s vacation week, and I thought maybe it would be something for kids to do,” Mr. Ben David said.

The quiet Saturday afternoon event was a welcome respite from the weeklong Boston Marathon ordeal and a wonderful opportunity to watch a boy learn that he can do good things in the world simply by doing what he loves.

For more information call 508-627-5634.