The International Wildlife Film Festival got its traditional kickoff Sunday as the WildWalk parade invited Missoulians to dress up as their favorite animal and stroll through downtown.

At the head of the procession, IWFF director Mike Steinberg wore a false mountain goat head on his shoulders. Each of the IWFF staff and volunteers had chosen a different animal to portray at the front of the parade.

“I can barely see in this, but that’s okay,” Steinberg said.

From front to back the line of elephants, bears, ladybugs, jellyfish and bees stretched for almost three blocks as it made its way down Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula. The event culminated in a party called WildFest in Caras Park.

The 38th annual International Wildlife Film Festival, held at the Roxy Theater, runs through April 25. Last year the festival saw a 70 percent year-over-year increase in total attendance.

Deb Fassnacht wore four brightly colored cardboard wings on her back as she got ready for the parade to start. The executive director of the Watershed Education Network or “queen dragonfly for today,” was helping to lead a group of Sussex School kindergarten students in the WildWalk.

“We’ve been taking them out on river exploration where we collected aquatic insects and take them to a safe place where the kids can explore and study them,” she said.

On Sunday, some of those same students were in the parade dressed up as the same “river critters” they had found on the trips with the Watershed Education Network. They walked along in front of a blue banner simulating the river.

“So during the parade they will be moving like the mayflies and stoneflies they found in the water,” Fassnacht said, adjusting the round black goggles over her eyes.

As part of its mission to connect students to their environment, Fassnacht’s organization takes more than 1,000 Missoula students per year on the river trips.

Sussex wasn’t the only school getting involved in the parade. Loryn Zerr, the art teacher at the Missoula International School, had the job of lining up students from each of the school’s grade levels.

The international school’s second- and third-grade classes had recently completed a unit about rainforests, Zerr said, and the school decided to get involved with WildWalk by having all of the grades work together on bringing a simulated rainforest to the parade.

“We are all about collaborating our studies with the arts,” Zerr said.

Pre-kindergarten kids were dressed as the ants and the kindergarten and first-graders were the frogs. The second- and third-graders had the biggest job, dressing up as various creatures found in the rainforest, while the older students held branches and handmade birds on poles above the other kids to give the whole display a vertical element.

Bryon Schmaus wore a Canada goose decoy on his head, with a pair of duck and goose calls around his neck.

“I’m a duck hunter so I have a lot of them,” he said.

Schmaus grew up in Missoula and always loved going to the IWFF. This year his 8-year-old daughter McKenna, dressed up as a bat on Sunday, wanted to take part in WildWalk too. Behind him, Schmaus pulled a string of three more duck decoys.

“I painted them yellow so they would look more like ducklings,” he said, pulling one of the calls to his lips to issue a few quick quacks.

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