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As the seats fill inside Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Earth Theater, there are giggles and jumps in the audience and wiggles and thumps from the coolers and carriers stacked at the front of the room. When Mallory Vopal swoops in wearing fluorescent Nike sneakers and jeans, the show begins.
The manager of the museum’s living collection bends low over a blue cooler, emerging with both arms full of a bright-eyed Australian carpet python. “This is Boomer,” Vopal announces cheerfully. “She’s four years old—that’s young for a snake.”
“Wow,” calls a startled 4-year-old in the front row. “It’s bigger than a corn snake!”
Boomer and more than 30 other small reptiles, birds, mammals, and insects comprise the newest educational offering at the museum. The live animal program springs the museum’s collection of millions of objects and scientific specimens into dynamic action. Today’s Living Animal Encounter in Earth Theater—a half-hour show offered daily at 1:30 p.m.—introduces Boomer, Mango the parrot, Pico the chinchilla, Karen the baby alligator, and Pepper Jack, a de-scented skunk.
“These animals are given a job: to teach people about their wild counterparts,” Vopal explains. “We use them in our exhibits and our outreach programs. They go out every day, to festivals, corporate events, nursing homes, and even private birthday parties. They’re completely comfortable with travel.”
Vopal, who joined the museum staff in 2013 after working for a zoo and conservation center in West Virginia and Ohio, respectively, says the animal ambassadors counteract a misconception about the museum’s mission. “Our collection is not just specimens and fossils. Our scientists study live animals and plants in the field. The living collection helps bridge the gap, making connections between the fieldwork and the visitor,” Vopal notes. “Research shows that seeing a live animal helps visitors retain knowledge about an animal’s habits and habitats much better than just seeing a [preserved] specimen.”
Skeletons and taxidermy skins, of course, don’t require around-the-clock care like the living collection. Live animals need upkeep and feeding even when the museum is closed. It’s all part of the job, says Vopal, who’s loaned her home’s spare bedroom to a kestrel in need. “That was a strange houseguest,” she admits.
“What I like is that the reaction is the same, for kids and adults. It’s the wow factor. There’s an instant connection.”
– Mallory Vopal, manager of the museum’s living collection
Chelsey Pucka, the museum’s director of lifelong learning, says she wanted to initiate a live animal program since joining the staff seven years ago. “Our visitor data clearly told us they really wanted a program like this. We want to activate a lifelong love of nature and science,” says Pucka. “To do that, visitors must engage with real tools and, in this case, live animals.”
Many of the nation’s top science museums use live animals; Pucka and her staff sought advice from the leading programs as they readied their own, which has steadily grown over the past three years. Key to its success is Vopal, a native of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and longtime animal lover who has kept pets since childhood. She laughs that of two photos propped up on her work desk, the one of her dogs is larger than the one of her husband, Christopher.
Vopal is a Girl Scout with silver and gold awards, the equivalent of an Eagle Scout badge. With degrees in environmental education and community education and leadership, her past experience working with live animals at The Wilds, a private non-profit safari park and conservation center in Ohio, has proved invaluable. Her network of animal husbandry professionals often brings new creatures to the museum, many of which were rescued or rehabilitated.
Recent examples include Mango, a brilliant sun conure parrot from the South American rainforest, and Wriggly, a newborn kestrel. Rescued from a home where hundreds of birds were hoarded, Mango needed months of patient care before he was comfortable leaving his cage. He’s since recovered enough to participate in the Earth Theater shows, even pirouetting on command.
Wriggly, a two-ounce kestrel, was stolen from a West Virginia nest. Mike Book, executive director of the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center, described the tiny falcon chick as a “special needs bird” that suffered from malnutrition at an early age and required a scope of attention beyond what his volunteer program could provide. The museum’s diligent care provided a solution. “At the Carnegie, he had five people taking care of him,” says Book. Sadly, after six months of improvement, Wriggly passed away from natural causes.
The museum is working towards accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the highest industry standard and a process that can take a number of years to complete, ultimately simplifying the acquisition of future animal ambassadors. Vopal is quick to note that the museum does not participate in breeding programs, and that all the animals receive regular environmental enrichment.
Her enthusiasm for the wildlife in her care is reflected by her audience, regardless of age. “What I like is that the reaction is the same, for kids and adults. It’s the wow factor,” says Vopal. “There’s an instant connection.”
The biggest challenge in the museum environment, Vopal says, is its wide range of topics. “The messaging is similar to what I’ve done in zoos. All zoos and aquariums have program animals. But here, we have so many different subject areas,” which she admits is a good challenge to have as an educator.
That means, for instance, enhancing the museum’s recent Potterfest—an adults-only celebration of Harry Potter novels—with appearances by live owls and snakes representative of the books’ characters. And presentations in the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt now include live sand boas from the region, as well as bess beetles, similar to the scarabs worshipped in that culture.
The biggest fans of the living animal collection? The staff, of course. Many of the museum’s scientists stop in regularly to visit their favorites. “[Museum director] Eric Dorfman was here yesterday, snuggling a skunk,” says Pucka. “He was the one who actually named our alligators. They’re his favorites.”
Back inside Earth Theater, it’s clear that the audience, both adults and children, have bonded with Vopal and her animal team. As she spools the python back into its cooler, she leads the crowd in a fond farewell: “Bye, Boomer!”
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