As the fourth-grade students filed through the doors of the unfinished Missouri Department of Conservation nature center, there was an unmistakable buzz.
"Ohhhs" and "aaahs" filled the air, and that was for the rather adult-looking, sophisticated auditorium.
By the time the children got to touch snakes, see an alligator snapping turtle up close and dip their hands into a lake sample with bugs and tadpoles, they had all but forgotten the 160-seat auditorium.
Two classes, one from West Lane Elementary in Jackson and another from Blanchard in Cape Girardeau, had the privilege of taking the first children's tour of the $4.7-million, 20,000-square-foot facility Tuesday.
The building wasn't quite as ready as conservation officials had planned. With 10 days remaining until the grand opening, there were still no bees in the beehive, no fish in the aquarium and a couple of unfinished exhibits. At the beginning of his first tour, conservation agent A.J. Hendershott practically had to shout over the sounds of drills and other construction machines in the background.
But the children didn't seem to mind. Hands darted in the air in response to every Hendershott question. Some children wanted to ask questions of their own. Others wanted to tell their personal wildlife experiences.
At the first station, which resembled an old store, Hendershott asked the young tourists what kinds of meat can be found in today's grocery stores. He got answers such as pork and chicken.
He then explained that Missourians long ago used to eat a lot of ducks, deer, opossum, squirrels and catfish.
He then reminded the students that the hunting and trapping eventually got out of hand.
"How many of you have ever seen a deer or a turkey?" he asked.
Every hand was raised.
"One hundred years ago, seeing a deer or turkey in Missouri was very uncommon," Hendershott said, explaining that the animals at that time were killed off due to a lack of conservation controls. Both populations have since recovered. But that's not true for all Missouri natives.
"Elk used to be common here at one time, but two things happened: They lost their habitat and people hunted without regulations," he said.
At the next station, students got to use a buck call. Then they crawled through a manmade beaver dam to the next station, where they got to pet a water snake and see that an alligator snapping turtle has a tongue that looks like a worm. It uses the tongue to lure fish within biting distance.
The group then walked to a room that looked something like a biology lab. On two long tables were four containers filled with water.
Instructor Karel Borowiak talked about the importance of insects and small organisms in the habitat of a lake. Inside the water tubs were small insects, tadpoles and larvae. The children were also provided tools so they could collect the critters and take a closer look through a magnifying glass.
"Dig in and see what you can find," she told them.
And they did, even the girls.
"They could do this all day long," said Gina Herzog, the teacher from Blanchard. "Looking at bugs in water; they can't hardly contain themselves. At Blanchard, every once in a while, a deer will come out, and when one does, everybody just stops."
Molly Nelms, a Blanchard student, said she liked the snapping turtle the best.
"Yeah, the snapping turtle ... usually snapping turtles don't look that ugly," she said.