WILD THINGS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Panda, shmanda.

So we don't have a Tai Shan, the heart-meltingly adorable 6-month-old panda that is drawing unprecedented crowds to the National Zoo. Who needs cute, anyway? This is Baltimore, where cute has never held much sway. Cute is fleeting. Cute is shallow. And cute, it bears repeating, is sold out at least through January.

Avoid the "panda-monium," Baltimore, and take solace, if not pride, in the fact that, while Washington may have cornered the market on cute, our town - even with its zoo closed in January and February - boasts some of the strangest, quirkiest, dare we say ugliest, creatures on the planet.

It's subjective, of course - eye of the beholder and all that - but if you are weary of the cute and cuddly and long to gaze at beings whose appeal lies, shall we say, somewhere deeper, you don't have to go far.

Between the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and area nature centers and wildlife preserves, one can view life forms every bit as repulsive (at first glance, anyway) as Tai Shan is endearing.

Take the shingleback skink.

Please.

This reptile, which stores its fat in its tail to survive the dry season, is unlikely to win any beauty contests; it resembles an internal human organ more than anything else. It doesn't exactly exude personality, either, preferring mostly to lie around. But who knows? With some good public relations, and maybe a "skink cam," it could capture the nation's heart the way Tai Shan has. Or at least its pancreas, which it more resembles.

"Perhaps they don't have the immediate appeal of the panda, but I wouldn't call them 'ugly,' " said Hillary Bates, spokeswoman for the aquarium, where the skink is one of 1,800 creatures in the new exhibit Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes.

A better local candidate for stardom might be Bill, a 4-inch-long (twice that when he stretches out) banana slug who resides in a wine cooler at the Carrie Murray Nature Center in Leakin Park.

Sure, he's spineless (that's what makes him an invertebrate) and, yeah, he leaves behind a trail of sticky slime, and true, his eyes - poised at the end of retractable tentacles - aren't the kind we humans usually adore. Maybe he wouldn't pull in numbers like the panda, but there's no reason, with proper handling (gloves are recommended), he couldn't become a major draw.

"He's a classic specimen," Lloyd Tydings, curator of the insect zoo at the nature center, said of Bill, one of eight slugs originally in the collection.

The Carrie Murray Nature Center - named after the mother of Orioles Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, who funded it - also has permanently disabled birds of prey and a variety of bugs guaranteed to make you recoil in disgust, including Australian walking sticks, tarantulas and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

For more indigenous examples of not entirely attractive creatures, one can head up to Harford County, where the Anna C. Leight Estuary Center on weekends displays skinks (our local version), toads, snakes and more, or head to a wildlife refuge, such as Patuxent, in Laurel, or Blackwater, in Cambridge, to see what you can spot on your own, including possums and muskrats.

At the Maryland Science Center, one can bond with blue crabs, blowfish and bullfrogs, and meet Savannah, a 17-pound, nearly 4-foot-long monitor lizard who lives in a plastic glass container under a heat lamp in the dinosaur exhibit area.

Perhaps the greatest concentration of less than cuddly beasts, though, is at the aquarium, particularly within the replicated river gorge that is home to the new Australia exhibit.

The 1,800 animals represent 120 species, many of which even have ugly names: Giant Gudgeon, Sooty Grunter, Pig-nosed Turtle, Northern Death Adder, Toothless Catfish, Australian Lungfish and something called Mouth Almighty. There are intimidating-looking freshwater crocodiles, frilled lizards and a host of other scaley, bug-eyed critters, the creepiest of all being the flying foxes, or fruit bats, which haven't made their permanent debut yet.

What makes some animals appealing and others not is an intriguing question, said Jim Rapp, director of the Salisbury Zoological Park, the only Maryland zoo open in the winter months.

"There is an old theory that human beings develop a strong affinity for animals that remind us of human infants - chubby with short limbs and big eyes.

"If you look at the panda, he fits that perfectly," Rapp said. "His actual eyes are small and beady, but he has those big black eye patches that make it seem like he has big eyes. Anybody who looks at a panda goes 'awwwww,' which is the same response they have looking at a human infant. Take away those eye patches and you'd have a whole different animal on your hands."

Still, Rapp can't help but wonder why some animals are more adored than others - the "ground rat" known as the prairie dog, for example.

Prairie dogs and river otters draw the most "awwwws" at his zoo, Rapp said, while colder reactions are elicited by the boa constrictor, python, alligators and snakes, whose bad press, Rapp notes, goes all the way back to the Bible.

"All animals have their place, even those that look a little bit frightening," Rapp said. "And some of them could certainly use a little pandalike attention."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

Where to go wild

National Aquarium in Baltimore

Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., until 8 p.m. Friday. Children, $14.95; adults, $21.95. 501 E. Pratt St., 410-576-3800 or aqua.org

Maryland Science Center

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Children, $10-$14; adults, $14.50-$20. 601 Light St., Baltimore, 410-685-5225 or mdsci.org

Salisbury Zoological Park

8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Free. 755 S. Park Drive, Salisbury, 410-548-3188 or salisburyzoo.org

Anna C. Leight Estuary Center

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Free. 700 Otter Point Road, Abingdon, 410-612-1688 or otterpointcreek.org

Carrie Murray Nature Center

8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Free. 1901 Ridgetop Road,Baltimore,410-396-0808orwww.ci.balt imore.md.us/government/recnparks/special_facilities.htm

Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge

Visitor center open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Free. 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel, 301-497-5760 or www.fws.gov/northeast/patuxent

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Visitor center open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Trails open dawn to dusk daily. $3 per vehicle. 2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, 410-228-2677 or www.fws.gov/blackwater

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