North Texas Daily

Denton ‘Critterman’ rescues exotic animals and educates public

Denton ‘Critterman’ rescues exotic animals and educates public


Denton ‘Critterman’ rescues exotic animals and educates public
February 26
11:49 2016

Kayleigh Bywater | Senior Staff Writer


For Denton “Critterman” David Kleven, his exotic pets are the world. He smiles when a small, fuzzy mammal resembling a lemur looks at him with big eyes, wrapping an 18-inch long tail around his arm. Mango, South American kinkajou, is only one of Kleven’s many animals.

Niache, a hedgehog-like animal called a tenrec with a series of quills protruding from its back, comes from Madagascar.

“I have everything from parrots and a beaver to owls of prey and a Burmese python,” Kleven said. “Sometimes people take in these exotic animals because they feel they’re ‘interesting,’ but they don’t know the first thing about how to take care of them. That’s where I come in.”

Whether it’s been playing with his friends’ dogs or learning about the cows on his family’s farm growing up, Kleven said he has always attempted to surround himself with various breeds of animals.

Becoming Critterman

After graduating America’s Teaching Zoo in California, Kleven created what he dubbed “Animal Edutainment,” an exotic animal education program, in 1990. His first animal was a green iguana named Rouag, who was given to him as a wedding gift.

Now Kleven has a 5.5-acre facility in Denton County filled with more than 50 different breeds of animals. He uses these animals to put on programs at places like schools, libraries and shelters.

“Sometimes people categorize animals into two categories: cute and cuddly or freaky and weird,” Kleven said. “I wanted to break that, even though it’s hard to change those perceptions.”

Kleven said he doesn’t have “typical” household pet breeds. He rescues animals that were injured, orphaned or cast off by previous owners in the area.

When Kleven obtains an animal, he does rehabilitation work, saying each creature’s growth and development is different. He then uses the animals to educate the public.

To help a young turkey vulture with an injured wing, for example, Kleven said he and his colleagues constantly socialized and stayed near the vulture to make it feel comfortable.

“You have to make sure you’re taking the right steps into caring for them and helping them,” Kleven said. “We want to make positive steps in order to make sure they have a positive outcome.”

To take in the exotic animals, assist and show them, Kleven had to obtain many different facility permits. These included a rehabilitation permit to treat injured animals, a USDA exhibitor permit to show animals, and a Texas Parks and Wildlife rehabilitation permit to help specific breeds of animals.

But when his animals are fully rehabilitated, Kleven doesn’t transfer them to zoos or get rid of them. Instead, he uses them to get a bigger picture across; these animals matter.


David Kleven Courtesy | David Kleven

Taking it further

Kleven books around 500 programs a year as the Critterman. He said he wants to reach out to as many people as possible about the importance of wildlife education and dispel fears about animals.

“I try to balance the science-based information with the fun and entertainment,” Kleven said. “You need a mix of both. I can give all the facts I want, but if I can’t inspire them then I feel like my job isn’t completely done.”

A big supporter of wildlife and nature conservation education, Kleven doesn’t limit the various audiences he reaches out to. He has attended Boy Scout meetings and schools as well as birthday parties at homeless shelters and domestic abuse victims’ houses.

The Hockaday School for girls in Dallas has hosted Kleven for over 15 consecutive years. Wendy Branson, the administrative assistant to the head of lower school at the Hockaday School, said she automatically books him each year.

“When he comes, our Pre-K to fourth-grade girls are completely mesmerized,” Branson said. “He provides age-appropriate information that draws attention to the need to protect the environment but makes it engaging at the same time.”

Kleven also frequents the Denton Public Library. Youth services librarian Stacey Irish-Keffer said Kleven provides Denton and surrounding communities with a unique experience.

“Kids benefit from hands-on, live-action learning,” Irish-Keffer said. “Since we live in the city, a lot of kids don’t have that vast of an understanding of wildlife. [Kleven] provides a safe medium for them to expand their knowledge on such an interesting and important topic.”

During one performance at the library, when Irish-Keffner’s son was in the audience, Kleven brought a legless lizard. He later visited the boy’s school with the same creature and called him in front of the room to help teach.

“My son, who was normally extremely shy, felt comfortable enough being in front of his entire school because of [Kleven],” Irish-Keffer said. “He gives kids the confidence to get up there and be excited about what they are learning.”

Kleven said he wants to make a deeper connection with his audience beyond interesting facts and exotic animals. He wants to convey that nature and wildlife aren’t just something to look at, they need protection.

“People need to take every opportunity they can to get closer to nature,” Kleven said. “The audience may find it funny when a bird poops during my performance, but my goal is they also understand the fact that the wild is constantly changing. I can’t change peoples’ minds about nature, but I can plant that seed that conserving it is critical.”

Featured Image: David Kleven Courtesy | David Kleven

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