- May 5, 2020
Jennifer Hunt feels like she has come back home. She has been hired as the new managing director of the Oakland Nature Preserve, a space in which she spent much of her childhood.
“This is an area I've always loved,” Hunt said. “As kids, we came out here tromping through the old orange groves. I learned to drive an old Army Jeep from over here over to Hull Island with my dad.”
Having watched the work that has been done in the 128 acres of land over the last 20 years, she said she wanted to be a part of that continuing transformation.
Hunt, the former lead environmental educator at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, was hired in June after hearing of the position. Now living in Apopka, she has always had a strong connection to West Orange County and Oakland. She grew up in Winter Garden and has attended Oakland Presbyterian Church for more than 50 years.
Hunt graduated in December with a Master of Zoology with a focus on conservation and inquiry-based education. She has studied ecosystems in places such as Belize, Baha and Australia.
At the preserve, Hunt's duties vary in a regular week. Her work attire is usually blue jeans, boots and a T-shirt and her hair in a ponytail — in case she has to be out of the office and walking the property.
“I could be working on the newsletter, I could be negotiating a contract, writing school curriculum, working with town managers, making decisions about things happening in this area with growth, pulling weeds, feeding turtles,” she said. “That's what's cool. It's never boring.”
She has even led a group of Girl Scouts wanting to hear a presentation on insects when no one else was available.
There is an abundance of programs already in place, including a partnership with local schools, but Hunt is eager to incorporate others to make the nature preserve experience even more educational and fulfilling for guests.
“I really would like to have some focus on some interactive children's activities,” she said. “This is a preserve, not a park, but we can make things available to children so that they can be interactive with their environment instead of just running up and down the trail, saying, 'Oh, there's an ant.'”
Her ideas include a senses garden that children can go into and see and touch and smell, as well as an
archaeological dig box within the garden where ONP staffers can leave artifacts or biofacts like a deer jaw bone for children to find.
She wants to have backpacks available to children with items like a magnifying glass, bug catcher and scavenger hunt.
To make these dreams happen, she said, it takes grants, funding and manpower.
“Just about everything out here is volunteer,” Hunt said. “We can't survive without our volunteer base. We have teens who come pull weeds, people who assist with maintenance; one guy rebuilt part of the fence because a tree fell on it. If they're into restoration, we can tag-team them with our (other) volunteers.”
To become an ONP volunteer, call Hunt at (407) 905-0054; visit to the website, oaklandnaturepreserve.org; or follow the preserve on Facebook. Students can receive community-service hours.
When Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida two weeks ago, Hunt and her team got busy preparing the nature preserve.
In addition to the buildings and loose items, the team had to move animals from their outdoor enclosure. Seven aquatic turtles were placed in kiddy pools in the classroom, and four terrestrial turtles were housed in bins full of leaves. The snakes and salamanders were temporarily placed in the classroom and museum.
As for all the wild animals in the preserve, Hunt wasn't worried about them.
“Animals are much better at this than we are,” she said.
Contact Amy Quesinberry at [email protected]