The defining moment of Mei Len Sanchez-Barr's life occurred on a moonlit beach in Costa Rica when she was about 8 years old. She and her sisters had been brought to the beach by their uncle, who was a sea turtle egg poacher. "It's part of the culture there. People take the sea turtle eggs and eat them," explains Sanchez-Barr, who grew up in the Central American country.
As she watched, a sea turtle crawled up onto the beach and laid her eggs. The poachers caught the eggs in a plastic bag before they even hit the sand. The young Sanchez-Barr watched with amazement and conflicting feelings.
"I fell in love right then and there. I thought, wow, this creature is so amazing," she recalls. She also felt instinctively that poaching the sea turtle's eggs was wrong. She says the experience – which was both positive and negative, but undeniably powerful – "made me who I am today."
She means that quite literally. Sanchez-Barr is a marine biologist with more than 20 years' experience in conservation education at institutions including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the National Audubon Society and the Miami Seaquarium.
The founder and executive director of Eco Adventures, a Millersville-based company focused on wildlife education and conservation, Sanchez-Barr also happens to be the wife of reptile expert Dr. Brady Barr, world-renowned host of the National Geographic TV show "Dangerous Encounters" and America's version of the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Barr, a charismatic speaker, longtime educator and self-described "kid at heart," makes regular appearances at Eco Adventures when he is in town.
Sanchez-Barr was working on her senior thesis on lizards at the University of Miami when she met Barr, who was looking for research assistants.
"I volunteered, and that's when I fell in love, not only with alligators but with my husband," she says with a laugh. "He found someone just as crazy as him. We'd go out in the Everglades every night and catch alligators. … It was hard work, but I loved every minute."
When Barr completed his Ph.D. and got a job with National Geographic in 2000, the couple moved to Maryland. Sanchez-Barr worked at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as the visitor program manager until she gave birth to the couple's daughter, Isabella, in 2005. A few years later, they had a son, Braxton. Sanchez-Barr held down the fort at home while her husband traveled to more than 80 countries, capturing and studying some of the world's most dangerous creatures. But after a while, she says, "I missed working."
Sanchez-Barr launched Eco Adventures three years ago to expose kids to hands-on opportunities to learn about wildlife, like the ones she had as a child. For the first few years, she traveled around to community centers and schools in Severna Park while housing snakes, tarantulas and Madagascar hissing cockroaches in her family's basement.
In January, Eco Adventures opened a brand-new facility, with help from partners Eric and Melissa Van Gieson, who also have backgrounds in science and education. From the outside, the 4,000-square-foot space resembles a generic warehouse. Once visitors step inside, however, they are transported to a lush rainforest. Tall trees and flowering plants stretch up the mossy green walls to the high ceilings, hung with vines. Butterflies alight on branches, and the sounds of chirping birds and insects fill the air. While the foliage and rainforest symphony may be artificial, the baby crocodiles in the indoor croc pond are very real – as are the various other "creepy crawlies" in residence, including a 20-foot reticulated python named Gigantor.
Eco Adventures' new space has allowed the company to expand its offerings from the hands-on enrichment programs for school-age children that are central to its mission, to Mommy and Me classes for younger kids, family fun nights, birthday parties, field trips and a variety of summer camps. The facility is adjacent to the 1,700-acre Severn Run Wildlife Area, which Sanchez-Barr sees as a huge plus. "I truly believe that the younger we get these kids out there experiencing nature, the better it is in the future for everyone," she says.
Barr adds, "A problem we all face in society is that we're raising kids that have little or no contact with nature. It's been dubbed 'nature deficit disorder' … and it's disturbing because our kids are going to be the next stewards of the planet."
Barr hopes that Eco Adventures can help teach parents and children that there's "a big, wide, wonderful world out there" that's not to be feared, and it's as close as your backyard. "I'm a product of supportive parents and teachers who believed in hands-on learning, the kind of thing we're trying to do here," says Barr. "That absolutely catapulted me into my career." Not many people can say they grew up to be exactly what they dreamed of as children. But Sanchez-Barr and her husband did, and they hope to instill that sense of possibility and power in the children they encounter.
After she watched the sea turtle laying her eggs on the beach that night in Costa Rica, Sanchez-Barr convinced her uncle to stop poaching.
"I remember at that moment thinking, kids have a lot more power than people think they do," she says. "They can change people's behaviors. I thought, when I grow up I'm going to protect these animals and I want to be a teacher, too. And that's what I'm doing today."