I made a point of discussing this nighttime walk in the woods with my little boy before attending. Where do you meet animals? I ask him. Do we meet them at the grocery store or in the city where we live? Nope. So we’ll go to the woods to meet them and learn about them. Isn’t that a good idea? Sure, he says. I explain that the animals we’ll meet will really be people in costumes. He thinks that’s just fine.

The walk takes off, headed up by a Leslie Science Center staff member, with about twenty people, adults and kids both. We’re very excited. Not many children get to walk around in the woods at night.

The first thing we come across is, literally, a big pile of leaves that talks about composting — how the leaves fall to the ground in the fall and eventually become part of the earth. A lantern hung from the tree showcases the leaf pile and we can nearly see the person underneath, but not quite.

Next, we come across someone in a huge orange sleeping bag yelling, “I AM A SLUG,” and lifting his head up with long tentacle eyes. It’s quite funny, and by now we’re realizing there is nothing scary about this walk.

A magnificent great horned owl with feather boas wrapped around her legs shows us her large claws, “for catching animals to eat.” After teaching us all to hoot, she makes us honorary owls but says that doesn’t mean we can stay up all night, even though we’re nocturnal. Hearing that skunks are her favorite meal, the kids all lift their voices in a chorus of “Eeewww.” I bet each of us will remember that great horned owls have no sense of smell.

On we go, tromping along the dark path. It’s easy to believe we have really turned into owls; the children’s eyes are wide as can be. The first thing Mr. Possum does is ask whether we’ve seen an owl. When we chorus, “Yes, she’s back there,” he drops to the ground to play dead for a moment before teaching us about his tail, which he can hang from, and how mommy opossums keep their little babies in a pouch. He has us hold up our thumbs to see the actual size of a baby opossum. The snapping turtle warns us, “I’m mad! I’m mean! Don’t you get near me!” Her foam shell completely covers her body as she sticks out her webbed feet and pokes out her head. Her tail has spikes on it as well.

I’m not sure why, in this culture, we scare our children and then laugh and tell them not to be scared. I have clear memories of Halloween as a child that are un-pleas-ant. But I’ve finally found an activity that can absolve all that bad juju. It’s good family fun, without the blood and gore. Especially if that possum stays out of the road.

Leslie Science Center hosts another Animal Haunts trek on Saturday, October 29.

[Review published October 2005]