The fork-tongued guest at a recent Sunrise Rotary meeting made quite an impression on the Westport civic group.

Corn Muffin, a slithery serpent, appeared before the gathering in Bobby Q's restaurant when it was pulled from a green-and-white striped flour sack by John Horkel, head of EarthPlace, Westport's popular nature museum.

"Corn Muffin is not poisonous and is just as harmless as black snakes and milk snakes found throughout Fairfield County," Horkel said of the corn snake, as some in the audience chuckled nervously.

That's not the case with another EarthPlace reptile -- Barnie, a 12-foot python that has lived in a man-made snake pit under glass for the last 30 years at the museum on Woodside Avenue.

"Barnie may be the world's longest-lived python," Horkel said as he wrapped Corn Muffin around his left arm.

Aiming her head toward the audience, Corn Muffin obliged by sticking out her forked tongue and flicked it about.

"Her vision isn't too good," Horkel said. "She senses people in the area, to the right or left, by registering odors." Mainly, Corn Muffin is on the prowl for food. Her favorite palate-pleaser? Rats.

Horkel has steered EarthPlace for almost 25 of its 52 years. It is a favorite destination for families, especially those with young children.

"It is a place where folks can get up-and-personal with nature when they want to get away from it all," said Horkel, 63, who will be retiring in two years.

Changes are under way.

"We're putting on a new roof and doing other things so the new director, when selected, will take charge of a center that is ship-shape," he said.

"The atmosphere at EarthPlace is inviting. Visitors can walk in and roam around, feeling at home in a very inviting place "I hope with inevitable change that atmosphere will be maintained."

"Horkel said he is "amazed that EarthPlace is a thread in the fabric that makes Westport wonderful. Other prominent threads in the fabric are the Westport Library and the Westport Historical Society.

Horkel was asked about the plight of oil-covered pelicans in the Gulf, victims of the big BP oil leak.

"We share the environment on this planet with them as we do with all living individuals," he said. "I am asked how can you put a value on the life of one pelican. I say it is impossible to say. The loss of any creature in nature may represent bad things coming our way because we share the environment with them. We hope any that the damaged may be rehabbed and put into a state where they can reproduce."

Before steering EarthPlace, Horkel was curator for the Texas Zoo and executive director of the Houston Arboretum. He holds a PhD in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M.

When he arrived in 1985 at EarthPlace it was mainly a stop for youngsters who wanted to pet small animals and watch birds in big cages. With help from an enlightened board, he has established a 62-acre empire, making it a complete environmental experience long before the word "environment" became a politically fashionable term.

It is now a total experience for pre-schoolers up to seniors, with offerings that range from nature walks, wildlife rehab to the nursery school activities.

EarthPlace also has become involved in projects like water-quality testing and exploring the bottom of the Saugatuck River, especially where it joins Long Island Sound.