Join Date: Mar-2003
Location: Orillia, ON
No time last night, but I'll steal a bit this morning. Here's some thoughts on educational programs, based on the following- conducting programs professionally (i.e. for money) since 1994. Fulltime for Jenny since '96, and for me since ~2001. Jenny did them voluntarily on an occasionally basis for about 8 years prior to '94. At this point, we do over 200 programs annually to a wide variety of venues, and figure that we reach ~20000 people annually (though this is a very crude estimate). Our programs include schools, malls, provincial parks, conservation areas, summer camps, birthday parties, corporate events and a few specialized things like animal control training seminars, park interpreter training, etc. here and there.
1) Our main focus is on snakes, because they are what people tend to be afraid of and kill. You rarely hear of someone terrified of treefrogs or turtles (though there are exceptions). Yes, people need education about these animals as well, and we do provide some (quite a bit, actually) but it isn't our focus.
2) We also focus on native Ontario species. For turtles and frogs, it is exclusively native (plus sliders, which are introduced). We work with some exotic snakes as well, and a few lizards. Working with native species can be a bit of a nightmare from a red-tape perspective, but we feel it is critical to educate people about what they will encounter in the wild here. We also do a little bit about pet reptiles, appropriate pet selection, etc. but not very much.
3) We are very hands-on. This is another reason for the focus on snakes- they are best suited to this. Here's a major area where we differ, BW! We actually let participants hold the snakes completely on their own. We do not keep control of the head, except when someone who is nervous requests it. It is not unsual for 2 of us (there are 2 of us at most programs) to have 6-8 snakes out at once. We simply supervise the handling, which at times feels a lot like lifeguarding. Before we do the hands-on part of the show (2nd half), we explain the rules very thoroughly- no scaring anyone, snakes to stay within a defined area, no snakes on the floor or chairs, gentle handling with lots of support (yes, we explain this in much more detail!). In some cases, kids are sitting down, but in others they are not. It depends on the nature of the program. The exceptions regarding handling would be with one of our 2 burmese pythons or 2 boa constrictors. We generally control or at least closely supervise the front end of these snakes, though this is not a hard and fast rule if we feel very comfortable with the situation and the people handling them. The 2 burms are both ~3m long, and are not that far away from retirement. For safety reasons, and because they get too heavy to be hauling them around a lot, we will not work with them in this capacity for much longer (not more than 4m, anyway). Many people are surprised that we let the public hold the animals like this. Yes, it is a small risk to both the animals, and the public. However, we feel it is very justified given the tremendous benefit of doing it. So far, we have had only one snake sustain noteworthy injury due to public handling- an eastern garter that was squeezed by a young girl and had it's back broken. It recovered somewhat but died about 1.5 years later, in part due to complications I believe. We have had a couple of other close calls, of course, but we do supervise things pretty closely, and have always managed to avert disasters. On the human side, we have had two kids bitten by snakes- one corn, and one eastern milk. In both cases, they kids squeezed the head of the snake enough to threaten it into biting. Neither case required a bandaid, though one child was upset and did cry a bit. It is important to keep in mind, however, that we work with specimens that are carefully selected, and generally not dangerous at all. Our black rat snakes could spend an hour chomping on a child and they still wouldn't require hospitalization! Given this, we think it is quite safe. Also, we do carry $1M liability insurance, just in case. Another thing- we do not consider these animals to be our personal pets. They are more like employees. The reason we have them is to let people hold them! If they are not suitable for this, we don't have them in the collection. It also avoids the 'I can't bear to let them hold my precious (insert name here)' situation.
4) We take hand sanitizer along, but do not dispense it unless asked, or we think a particular situation warrants it. We do use it ourselves if we have held a turtle, but not with the snakes. Yes, snakes do have Salmonella in their GI tract, and in their feces. However, assuming the snake is reasonably healthy and their enclosure is cleaned regularly, there shouldn't be large amounts of it on their scales. Snake scales, being clean and dry, are not great surfaces for bacterial growth. In fact, we consider them to be cleaner than people, and I often tell people that they are at a much greater risk of catching something from one of the other people handling the snakes than from the snakes themselves. Is there a risk here? Yes, but it is small, and we try to keep it in perspective. We do encourage hand washing, but for obvious reasons we can't enforce it. Some outdoor venues don't even have facilities for it. We don't generally let people hold the turtles, and we do explain the reasons behind this.
5) Good advice re: CRAP! However, given the number of animals going out to shows, we couldn't manage the soakings. We schedule feedings around shows so that it is less likely to be a problem, but we do get some craps (typically small) along the way. We try to use them as teachable moments (yes, once order is restored) if they happen in a manner that disrupts the group. It generally happens during the handling portion, however, which is typically already very disrupted! We carry a small rubbermaid full of paper towels (and hand sanitizer- it can sure come in handy here!) for when this occurs. Scheduling feeding around shows means if you have a large number of shows, you need a correspondingly large number of animals. It also means that during peak times, things will go without food for quite a while. Another great thing about snakes- this is quite normal for them. We feel that snakes in captivity are frequently overfed, so we typically err on the side of underfeeding in most cases. Since we are not intent on breeding the snakes, this is not usually a problem for our specimens. As long as they are otherwise healthy and in good body condition, some rodent feeding colubrids may go a month between feedings during the summer (our busy season). The two burms generally get fed in June and then again in September. When compared to how they feed in the wild, this is not abnormal.
6) Also good advice, I think, re: BITES. Definitely stress it not being the animal's fault, and handle the situation calmly. However, I can only recall this happening once for us- our blue-tongued skink bit Jenny while she was presenting. She continued without acknowledging what was happening, and the crowd never even knew that she had been bitten.
7) I agree that it is awesome to have someone get past their fears and touch or hold a snake. We will often work one on one with people until they manage it. I had one woman at a fair take over an hour (she actually gave up, left, but then came back 10 minutes later) but she ended up holding a good-sized snake eventually. Before the handling starts, we declare a specific area for the snakes to be in. Nervous people can move outside of it. We encourage people very strongly to come in and at least touch them, and ~99% of people do once they see others interacting with the snakes so comfortably.
8) We complete our talk first. In most cases, it is ~1/2 hour with typically 4-5 Ontario snakes, 1-2 Ontario turtles, 1-2 appropriate pet snakes (corns + something else if desired) and finally 1 large specimen (burm or boa). At the end of the talk, we take questions, which disrupts things less than if we take them throughout. We get through the material faster this way, and find it easier keep the group focussed. Rarely do we have trouble keeping their attention. This may be in part due to having two alternating presenters rather than one person continuously talking. We do a Q&A session for a few minutes, then explain the rules for handling, and then do the hands-on portion, which can take another 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour (rarely more) depending on the size of the group and the interest level.
9) One of the challenges is definitely to speak at the level of the audience. We might go from a daycare one day to a specialized training seminar the next. However, most of the basic content is actually the same. You just have to adjust the size of the words you use to convey the message! Every now and then a word like 'exude' will come out in front of a bunch of five year olds, but usually it isn't too bad. Practice does help, though! Mixed groups such as families at provincial parks are the hardest- all ages, and a wide variety of interest/knowledge levels. You just have to do the best you can, and you do develop a feel for it.
Wow- it's been over an hour already. Time to get on the road!