Meet the Nature-Loving Pennsylvanians Pursuing Their Passion for Snakes, Big Cats, Mushrooms, and More

Meet the Nature-Loving Pennsylvanians Pursuing Their Passion for Snakes, Big Cats, Mushrooms, and More

Photo By Reading Eagle: Tim Leedy/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

By Kalena Thomhave

September 7, 2023

In the heart of Pennsylvania’s diverse landscapes, a group of dedicated individuals are devoted to embracing nature and its wild inhabitants.

Within the natural world, many Pennsylvanians find joy and meaning. This is particularly true for those residents of the commonwealth who have careers or hobbies dedicated to exploring and understanding the wildest parts of our state.

Read on to learn about seven of your neighbors who aren’t afraid to spend their time with big animals, creepy crawlies, or the lonely stillness of the trees.

Terry Mattive and Family, Founders of T&D’s Cats of the World – Penns Creek

While the wild animal refuge in Snyder County’s Penns Creek may be known as T&D’s Cats of the World, the refuge takes in many more animals than just big cats. Founder Terry Mattive, who runs the refuge with his adult children Jennifer and TJ, relies on his pension and some donations to take care of nearly 300 animals. These animal residents include big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards, but also bearcats, lemurs, birds, wolves, bears, foxes, and more. Mattive had grown up always wanting to take care of animals, and he aimed to make his dream a reality by slowly buying the land he’d need for such a site. Today, T&D’s takes in abused and mistreated animals from zoos, government confiscations of exotic pets, private individuals, and other animal rescues. Most of the money spent on the wildlife refuge goes to feeding the animals. The big cats eat about 12,000 pounds of meat each month!

You can visit T&D’s Cats of the World when the facility is open to the public, which is usually about 70 days each year. Your admission cost supports the Mattive family’s efforts to take in any animal that needs help.

Jack Hubley, Naturalist and Falconer – Greater Hershey

Meet the Nature-Loving Pennsylvanians Pursuing Their Passion for Snakes, Big Cats, Mushrooms, and More

Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Planning Commission

If you’ve ever visited the magnificent Hotel Hershey, perhaps you’ve heard of one of the hotel’s unique attractions: The Falconry Experience. Or maybe you’ve even heard from presenter Jack Hubley himself as he educates people about falcons and falconry. It turns out that falconry, through which a person develops a hunting partnership with a bird of prey, has existed for thousands of years. Hubley himself is a Master Falconer, so his demonstrations — calling a bird to his arm, which you can do too during the Hershey program — are the real deal. You don’t even need to be a guest of the Hotel Hershey to experience the wonders of falconry.

Hubley, based in Mount Gretna, is also a naturalist, presenting educational programs about the animals who live around us to schools and other groups.

Barbora Batokova, Mushroom Forager – Pittsburgh

Barbora Batokova knows fungi. And she shares what she knows through a photography project on her social media, where she posts under the handle @fungiwoman. Originally from the Czech Republic, where she grew up foraging for mushrooms with her mother and grandmother, Batokova first started documenting her mushroom foraging experiences in 2018 as a way to reconnect to her family and home country. Now, she connects with mushroom lovers from all over the world from her home base in Pittsburgh as she documents the mushrooms she’s seen in local and not-so-local parks and forests. In addition to her fungi photography project on Instagram, Batokova publishes mushroom recipes and sells prints of her work on her website.

Jason Hall, Birder – Philadelphia

Racist exclusion has historically kept — and still currently limits — people of color from all kinds of necessities like jobs and homes. But systemic discrimination extends into the outdoor world too, because people of color are far less likely than white people to engage in nature activities like birding. That’s something that Philadelphian and birder Jason Hall is working to change. In 2021, he founded the In Color Birding Club to facilitate connections between non-white birders and help them feel more comfortable exploring the outdoors and the excitement of birding. Hall posts about the birds he’s seen at @thebirdingbeardsman.

Steve Finke, Beekeeper – Kutztown

As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the plight of bees. You may know that honeybees are dying at unprecedented rates. And that’s why bee rescue is so important. Beekeepers like Kutztown’s Steve Finke are passionate about rescuing beehives when bees make homes of people’s living spaces. There’s no need to kill them—instead, these bees can simply be relocated.

Finke is president of the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers Association, which area residents can call if they need a swarm of bees removed. Finke and other beekeepers rescue bees and treat them for diseases so they can live healthy lives. Finke has rescued bees from an Allentown attic as well as a church in Neffs. As long as you don’t agitate the bees, he told, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Debbie Naha-Koretzky, The Wild Edibles Lady – Central Pennsylvania and Beyond

Debbie Naha-Koretzky is exactly what you’d want in a forager. She’s a nutritionist, so she understands food. She’s a Rutgers Master Gardener, so she’s great with plants. She is a naturalist, so she can identify those plants. And she’s a science teacher, so she knows how to share all her knowledge with you.

Known as the Wild Edibles Lady, Naha-Koretzky leads foraging walks throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey to show audiences that food is growing everywhere. You may have dandelions in your yard with which you could make dandelion fritters or you may pass black cherry trees as you hike in the forest. Harrisburg-based Naha-Koretzky can teach you how to bring nature into your kitchen, whether through a guided hike or through her book on the subject, “Foraging Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”

Jesse Rothacker, Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary – Greater Lancaster

Jesse Rothacker is the man behind Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary, a safe place for snakes of all sizes and a nonprofit committed to educating the public with fun and engaging reptile shows. Rothacker has filmed dozens of educational videos on Pennsylvania reptiles. In June of this year, Rothacker posted a video of himself getting bitten by a snake more than 50 times! Good news—it was a harmless Eastern Milk Snake, a nonvenomous snake commonly found in the Pennsylvania woods.

“I was hoping to make it more educational, but because this one actually is so active and so bitey, I kind of forgot what I was saying,” he said at the end of the video.


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