I secured an internship (and then part-time employment) my senior year at a science museum close to campus, and was that ever a learning experience. I was still very young, and though I had held other jobs during college (at a vet clinic, not surprisingly, and in the Library on campus) this was my first real museum job (read: lots to learn). The significance of this will be very evident shortly.
The museum, located in the middle of downtown Raleigh, was in the middle of building and opening a new space right next door to its previous building. During this transition, I worked with some fine people who would eventually oversee one part of the museum’s living collection. Until the new facility was complete, however, that collection lived with us.
Our “office” was a converted men’s restroom tucked into a corner of the old building. Lining the narrow hallway into the office proper were 50 gallon aquariums and six-foot-tall mesh cages that housed snakes, turtles, geckos (who were good at escaping) and other reptiles. In the “open” area, our residents included more snakes, a green iguana (his cage was suspended from the ceiling so as to make use of vertical space), at least ten tanks of various frog species, some hummingbirds, and a free-ranging golden orb weaver spider, into whose web my supervisor would toss crickets. As it hung suspended over his desk. I did not like having to use that desk.
On occasion, one of my responsibilities was to feed the animals…all the animals, including the snakes. While I didn’t have much of an issue with this (I had come to accept the Circle of Life a long time ago), it wasn’t my favorite thing to do. Snakes were carefully fed mice dangling from the ends of long metal tongs, and this was fine with me. Hummingbird feeders were filled with RO water, fruit flies were carefully deposited into frog tanks, mata-mata turtles vacuumed small fish out of the water, mealworms were distributed across the board, and everyone was happy.
So, this bathroom had a window. North Carolina nights can get a little chilly in the fall, and it was on one of these lovely evenings that I forgot to close the window as I left. The next day, upon my arrival, something smelled bad. Very bad. Like, snake vomit bad. And that’s exactly what it was. Apparently, after eating, if a snake’s body temperature is not maintained at a certain (high) temperature, it regurgitates its food. This makes supervisors mad. It also makes it hard to breathe in a small office with only one window…a window that lets cold air in but did not let stinky air out.
After my official internship ended (at the end of the semester, and not as a result of the snake barf incident) I was hired on as an instructor in the Education department. This meant I taught weekend classes, did outreach programs, and showed up at birthday parties with live animals.
Animal handling protocols vary in rigidity from one institution to another, and the rules and regulations (at least at the time) were pretty laid-back. While I was confident in my animal handling abilities, there was not a whole lot of training that preceded programs in front of the public, and I can recall with great clarity taking a deep breath, reaching into a tank full of a young American alligator, and thinking, “Please don’t bite me please don’t bit me please don’t let me grab your mouth…” At least that went well. Something else that would have been helpful? Bullfrog wrangling lessons.
You know how sometimes in movies, something at a children’s birthday party goes horribly wrong and all of a sudden you see fifteen ten-year-olds and their parents screeching and running around in paper hats? Did you know that actually happens in real life? Chaos ensues when a museum staff person, there to help you celebrate the big 0-7 with Timmy the Birthday Boy, somehow allows a large bullfrog to slither out of her hands, take two hops towards a shrieking throng of children, and then take off down the hallway. This really happened. To me. I do not make this up.
I did, however, yell, “Oh, shit!” as I scrambled after the fleeing frog and plopped him back in his cooler. It was sort of a moot point after that to try and teach them something, anything, educational about the remaining animals. The party had reached the pinnacle of excitement as the introduction to the frog became a little too audience participatory.
You want a museum experience? You want authenticity? You want memories? I got your memories right here. Ribbit.