IF YOU WANT an instructive lesson in the napping ways of wild things, visit the Virginia Living Museum in the middle of a warm summer day. Draped over branches, curled up in burrows, sprawled in the shade, basking in sunshine, languorously drifting in still waters and snoozing in a hollowed-out stump are the museum's many residents, creatures of the land and sea and sky, of Virginia's mountain streams and cypress swamps, its dark caverns and woodlands and bay-side beaches. Collectively devoted to siesta time.
On the other hand, activity at the museum is high at this hour of the day among another species -- Homo sapiens -- which is represented by many age, kinship and social groupings, dashing here and idling there, gazing, gawking, giggling, exploring, crawling, fidgeting, marveling, peering, questioning, learning. And in my case, tentatively stroking the left rear foot of a young alligator resting in placid reptilian contentment in the arms of Larry Sacks, one of the museum's more than 400 volunteers.
The Virginia Living Museum in Newport News is a shady natural oasis on Deer Park Lake that lies just off busy J. Clyde Morris Boulevard. Highlighting the rich variety of Virginia's plants, animals and ecosystems, the museum opened in 1987 and recently underwent a major expansion, adding a 62,000-square-foot building that houses several distinct wild habitats, along with hands-on discovery centers and interactive displays (including a touch-screen virtual frog dissection -- "Froguts"), a planetarium, an observatory for both daytime solar observations and night sky watching, and a museum store.
Step inside between now and Labor Day weekend and the first thing you'll probably notice is the roaring from the "Dinosaurs!" exhibit. The shrieking you'll hear will be coming from your own kids, when they're handed the odd, lumpy rock by a museum volunteer and asked to feel it and sniff it and guess what it is. (Hint -- it's what the dinosaur left behind, fossilized.) There's also a build-your-own-osaurus, with Velcro-ized heads, tails, legs and assorted body parts.
But the real focus of the museum's two-story main building and 10 surrounding acres of woods and water is Virginia's natural world -- particularly the creeping, crawling, flying, swimming, loping, slithering, bounding living things that make their home there. From the familiar white-tailed deer to the elusive bobcat and lumpish, toadlike Eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America, "You can see more animals here than you might see in a lifetime spent traveling through Virginia," my guide -- the museum's marketing director, Virginia Gabriele -- told me.
A 30,000-gallon aquarium swims with bay life, including a nurse shark and a loggerhead turtle that snaps up fishy bits during the crowd-pleasing aquarium feedings. In the "World of Darkness" exhibit, flounder confound the eye with their camouflaging abilities; ghostly moon jellyfish pulse in a tall, cylindrical tank; and a massive lobster enjoys a lucky fate: "We rescued him from the cooking pot," Gabriele said. The "Virginia's Underground" exhibit creates the experience of entering a limestone cave, complete with nesting pack rats. At the Chesapeake Bay Touch Tank, volunteers offer a meet-and-greet with water creatures while also educating visitors; I learned, for example, that the seemingly lowly horseshoe crab has bright blue blood (the result of its high copper content), an extract of which (harvested without permanent harm to the crab) is used the world over to screen IV drugs and implantable medical devices for bacterial contamination.
The museum's main attractions include two, two-story indoor habitats -- the Appalachian Cove and the Cypress Swamp -- with curving exterior glass walls that overlook a third large exhibit, an outdoor, three-quarter-mile elevated boardwalk that crosses Deer Park Lake and winds its way through the Coastal Plain Aviary and past natural settings inhabited by river otters, beavers, deer, wild turkey, bobcats and others.
Inside, in the pleasantly cool Appalachian Cove, a waterfall modeled after Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park cascades into pools teeming with aquatic life. (See if you can spot that hellbender salamander.) Alligators and turtles float in the Cypress Swamp. In both habitats, birds fly freely about; I heard a bobwhite call in the Appalachian Cove, and a green heron rested on a ledge high above the Cypress Swamp.
"A lot of our exhibits, the more you look, the more you see," Gabriele said. Stand in one place for a while, and as in a game of "I Spy," you will find yourself slowly discovering more and more inhabitants -- the flutter of wings in leaf litter, a frog almost perfectly blending with the background.
Outside, along the boardwalk, I found otters and beavers asleep in furry heaps. Only the ears and head of a red wolf, resting but alert, were visible. An immature bald eagle fixed me with an imperious and unflinching gaze, while a male wild turkey strutted, postured and crowed before an impassive audience of white-tailed deer. The opossum, I learned, is one of the world's oldest mammals, and it doesn't "play dead" -- it actually faints. The coyotes, Gabriele said, howl when freight trains pass nearby.
Many of the residents of the Virginia Living Museum either were orphaned, injured or born in captivity; a surprising number led former lives as pets, and the museum aims to educate people to understand that these are not animals for back yards and bedroom cages.
"We don't name any of the animals because we don't want people to think of them as pets," Gabriele explained. "This is a place for animals to be exhibited, but it's also a natural-environment setting where they can live much as they would in the wild."
A hooded merganser in the Cypress Swamp seemed to have taken this message to heart, making not-so-quick work of a freshly caught fish that, as far as the duck was concerned, defined the expression "biting off more than you can chew."
"That's why you don't see a lot of small fish in here," Sacks observed philosophically.
If for some of the residents this place is a refuge, for others whose numbers have been profoundly decimated, it is literally and poignantly a museum of the living. The red wolf, for example, was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. (Although thanks to the Red Wolf Recovery captive-breeding program, in which the Virginia Living Museum participates, a small number of wolves have been successfully reintroduced in a national wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina.) Once abundant in Atlantic coastal waterways, the shortnose sturgeon -- one of a species often called "living fossils" -- is listed as federally endangered. Other creatures as prosaic as the honeybees industriously constructing their honeycombed hive in an exhibit on the museum's upper floor face serious threats as well. And throughout the museum, signs educate with interesting facts (the Chesapeake Bay's summer diversity of 265 fish species dwindles to a mere 29 in the winter months) while reminding visitors of the impact of human activity; in the Coastal Plain section, for example, a sign notes, "Each year crabbers catch about two-thirds of the Bay's adult blue crab population."
Heavy messages for a summer vacation adventure with the kids? Perhaps. But they're also reminders of the rewards to be reaped from a thoughtful stewardship of the world around us, from the life-saving bounty in a horseshoe crab's blood to the wild, lonely cry of a wolf someday echoing again in the Virginia night.
VIRGINIA LIVING MUSEUM -- 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News. 757-595-1900. www.valivingmuseum.org. Open daily from 9 to 6 through Labor Day. Winter hours from Labor Day to Memorial Day are Monday-Saturday 9 to 5 and Sundays noon to 5. $8 for children 3-12 and $11 for adults, with additional fees for the planetarium and "Dinosaurs!" exhibit. Group discounts are available. Visit the Web site for a virtual tour, calendar of events, local tourism guide and other features.
Newport News is about three hours from the Beltway. Take Interstate 95 south to I-295 south, and then I-295 south to I-64 east. From I-64 east, take Exit 258A (Route 17/J. Clyde Morris Boulevard). Continue on J. Clyde Morris Boulevard for about two miles. Route 17 turns left at Jefferson Avenue (Route 143), but do not turn. Continue straight until the next traffic light. Turn left, and the museum will be on your right.