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Conservatory crawling with visitors

A python named Goliath and a black and white lizard named Shredder have moved in with a bunch of butterflies.

A reptile and amphibian exhibit opened this weekend in the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory.

The exhibit will run until March 18, and its opening coincides with the second annual Bug-a-licious Food Festival, being held this weekend during celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the Butterfly Conservatory.

New conservatory boarders include boa constrictors, crested geckos, bearded dragons, Honduran milk snakes, Mexican musk turtles and African millipedes.

They will take up residence with the 2,000 butterflies that flutter at will throughout the largely glass conservatory.

The conservatory, at 2405 Niagara River Parkway on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is handicapped-accessible.

About half of the butterfly population is raised in the conservatory, said Leslie Foster, the curator. Others are imported from farms in Central America and the Philippines.

More than 20 kinds of butterflies dine on the nectar in the flowers of the tropical trees that grow inside the conservatory and gorge themselves on orange halves placed strategically throughout the building. It's a sweet but short life, ranging from two to three weeks, Foster said.

The Niagara Parkway tourist attraction draws 500,000 visitors each year.

"People of all ages and walks of life enjoy coming here," Foster said. "Many people are in wheelchairs. The place always brings a smile to their faces."

A visiting family from London, Ont. -- Tom and Sandra Paisley and their two daughters, Brittany, 9, and Madison, 7 -- got a preview of the reptile exhibit when they were introduced to Goliath and Shredder last week during a media event about the insect food festival.

Madison allowed the 30-pound python to be draped around her neck.

"It's a bit scary," she admitted.

Her sister, Brittany, was content to hold the tegu lizard.

The tropical trees and flowers are grown by students in greenhouses in the adjacent Niagara Parks School of Horticulture.

The two new reptilian residents were introduced by Mike London, who runs a private reptile facility in Welland, Ont., and takes his traveling show of animals to a variety of tourist attractions, festivals, private parties and corporate functions.

Chef Jeff Stewart, a professor at the Niagara College Culinary Institute, presented a preview of his carefully concoctedinsect dishes.

The soup du jour at the bizarre buffet was an egg-based puree with nuts and red Amazon ants.

"I like it," said culinary student Terri Litkowich of Thorold, Ont. "It tastes like vegetable stew with a crunch."

The appetizers included dried black scorpions, water beetles and bamboo worms. There were no takers among those asked to take a bite.

"You have to know what kinds of insects to eat," said Stewart, a globe-trotting chef who spent two weeks in the Amazon last summer. "I go into the jungle with a native who knows what's poisonous and what isn't. If he's still standing after eating something, I'll try it."

Stewart uses international courier companies to import insects from Latin America and Asia for his cultural food course at the culinary institute and for the annual bug food festival.


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