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BWSmith 06-01-03 08:51 PM

A Guide to Reptile Educational Programs
I have actually seen several posts that ask how to do an educational program on reptiles. Since I have clocked hundreds of hours offering programs, I thought I would throw this together.


1. Taylor your show to your audience. If it is adults with a background in biology, use latin names and techical terms, it makes it easier on everyone. If it is 1st graders, you small words with a lot of excitement, be animated, and ask THEM questions. I try to have little prizes for correct answers like plastic snakes or something. Costs me all of a dollar. But base the way you present the animals on the age and knowledge level of your audience. You want to keep them interested without boring them by talking over them or being too "micky mouse" about it.

2. Decide what you want to cover. As a general rule, you should limit your program to include topics that can be illustrated by animals used. Don't talk about frogs if you only brought a snake. Stick to snakes. If you brought a Bullfrog, talk about amphibians a bit.

3. Be SAFE! Don't bring any animals that are in the blue, unpredictable, or that you are not familiar with. We don't want any unforseen accidents. If you let kids touch the snake, there 3 things to remember: 1, ALWAYS have the "sharp" end under control. This is why about a 6' snake is ideal, there is 5.5' of snake betweent he kids and the sharp end and you can easily keep control over the head. 2, Have them touch the snake with thier first 2 fingers front to back. This greatly reduces the chance of the snake reacting badly. This also asserts control over the children. 3, Have hand sanitizor next to you and arrange for the teacher to dispense sanitizor after they touch it and when everyone is done, the teacher should all take them to wash their hands. The last thing we want is some parent undercooking chicken, a kid getting salmonilla, and they blame it on YOU! A good disclaimer for the administrator to sign is a beautiful thing. Perhaps I will post a copy of the one that I use. I like it because it was written by the corporate lawyer for DuPont ;)

4: CRAP!!!!!!!! Speaking of accidents, here is a trick I learned. Don't feed the snake for a week before the show. Two days before the show, soak it in lukewarm water. The night before the show, put it int he container it will be in and take it for a short drive and then leave it in there for an hour. Then soak it again. This will allow the animal to relieve its bowels so they do NOT do it in front of kids. Trust me, you get all kinds of noises from the kids if this happens and order will be difficult to restore.

5. How to handle a BITE!!!!! Inevitably, at some point or another, an animal WILL bite you during a show. There is a right way and a wrong way to handle this. You can kick and swear and shove him in his bag while you suck the wound, or you can try a differnt method. As much as it pains me to say, Croc Hunter is our friend in this situation. I just look at the audience while they are in shock and say in my best crappy aussie accent (is there any other aussie accent Ben? :lol: ) "That's a naughty Girl! You're a little bit cranky." And calmly put the snake away. Then explain that it is not the snake's fault. "This just shows you that snakes ARE wild animals and she happened to be in a bad mood. She was just defending herself because she thought I might be a predator. This is why you NEVER pick up a snake in the wild" or something to that effect. Method works for me.

6. Stress the importance of herps, even venomous ones. :)

Ok, now let's talk about the individual groups we would be educating. I think kids are the primary target, so let's start with them.

Rule number 1, STAY INTERESTING!!!!! Be excited and animated, they will hsare your excitement. But at the same time be strict. These are wild animals. In front of everyone, go over the rules: 1. NOONE TOUCHES any animal without your consent. 2. Everyone stays seated. 3. Everyone has to stay quiet. 4. Anyone who cannot follow the rules, the teacher will remove (and don't be afraid to do it). While we are talking about rules, children and animals let me share an anictdote. Someone was doing an educational program at a school. He decided to bring venomous (I DO NOT recommend this). In addition, for the demonstration he hooked each one out of the box (VERY DANGEROUS PRACTICE!!!!!!!). So there he is, in front of a class of kids with a Cottonmouth on a hook (***shudder***). All of the sudden one of the kids rushes the front to GRAB the snake!!!!!!!!!!!! Luckily he was able to whip up his foot to push the kid down (abuse?) and swing the Cotton the other way! You can imaging how that may have turned out. Make the rules. Stick by the rules. Express the rules. Punish rule breakers. Most teachers are more than willing to help with discipline.

Rule number2, keep them involved. Ask them questions individually and as a group. IF it is a group of 1st graders, "What has no legs and crawls on its belly?" and they all will answer in unison "A SNAAAAAKE!" Things like that are great. I keeps them involved and makes them feel good that they knew the answer.

Rule number 3, there IS NO wrong answer. This can be a tough one. NEVER tell a kid that he is wrong, he won't say anything else. We have to learn to turn wrong answers into right ones. This is something you have to deal with on an individual basis. One particular instance comes to mind. I was giving a program for elementary schoolers. While I was going tover turtles and tortoises, one kid piped up and asked "Didn't like a long time ago, turtles used to be really really fast?" After a couple seconds I responded "Well, this guy here is a Slider, he lives int he water most of the time. See how slow he is on the carpet? Well in the water he can swim faster than you and I." I did not tell him he was wrong, I just skewed the topic slightly so that in some way he was right. Aside fromt hat method, there are ways to say that the answer is not correct without saying they are wrong. "You're close" or phrases like that do wonders.

Rule number 4, BE PREPARED for ANY question! That is about all I can say about that except expect a Croc Hunter question or comparison.

Rule number 5, speak on thier level. This can be hard trust me. I went from teaching a school one week to teaching EMTs envenomation prehospital care. It gets tough. But for kids you can say things like "This is a Boa, he is what we call a c-o-n-s-t-r-i-c-t-o-r. Can you all say that "constrictor"? Good! What that means is he squeezes his food. If a little mouse or rat that comes walking by while he is hungry, he sits and waits and waits and then BAM!!!! he grabs it and wraps his body ALLLLLLLL around it and squeezes and squeezes until he can eat it." One thing I have learned is not to sugar coat things, just simplify. These kids have been exposed to a lot!

For the most part, they have little interest, it is something other than class. Keeping their attention is tough. Unfortunately, the best method I have found for teenagers to get a little gruesome every once in a while and that perks them back up. I think the key is to portray snakes as animals who are generally harmless to humans and great for the environment, but also kill their prey really "COOL!". If you throw in a few gruesome details about the way they secure food, the interest level will be higher and they will pay more attention to the other stuff :)

Adults: This is generally nature centers and the such. Remember tha most are going to be ophidiophobes or at least have misconceptions. Treat them respectfully and be very matter-of-fact.

A few tips and tricks i have learned:
1. One thing I always do before a snake comes out of the bag is ask "Whoever is afraid of snakes can go sit over there (generally by a door and generally the teachers go there too)." Once they have all moved I walk over, sit down and ask "Now why are you afraid of snakes?" You would be amazed to the effectiveness of this simple method! This way, you address each fear individually and squash it! GREAT STUFF!!! There is no feeling like having one of the people in "Phobia Corner" touch a snake!!!! In all the programs I have done with hands on contact, only ONE, count them ONE, person has left without at least touching a snake. This method is amazing! ***takes a bow**** :lol:

2. For school shows I try to represent something from each group of herps. This gives a broad range of information and you are guarunteed not to run out of topics. I try to bring (in order I present) A frog, a turtle, a lizard and 2 snakes (one small, one large). This pretty much covers herps. For the frog, talk about amphibians, for the turtle, talk about turtles and tortoises, Lizards are pretty easy (just be sure to mention Komodo Dragons and the little guys found near you). I start with a smaller snake, like a kingsnake, and talk about snakes in general, the types of snakes, importance, and all that other fun stuff. This way, then I bring out the big snake, it is the last and I get lots of OOOHHHs and AAAHHHHHs. Keep it brief witht he big one especially if you are letting them touch. It makes everything run smoother. Before putting up each specimen, I ask the class "Do you have any questions about Turtles?" (or whetever I have out). This way, you don't have to backtrack.

OK, that is a lot of information, but it barely scratches the surface. This is just what I could think of off the top of my head. Perhaps in the future I will write a more detailed sheet including specific topics, show handling methods, and the legal rammifications. I purposely did not address venomous programs, that is a whole different ball game :) Hope this helps, even if it is VERY basic.

yankeefoxtrot 06-01-03 08:53 PM

BW, i envy you man! You know to much about everything! maybe someday ill be like that, hehehe. Keep it up!

Great post! I love reading all of yours!

Lucas out

CyberGhost 06-01-03 08:57 PM


HeatherRose 06-01-03 10:43 PM

That was an AMAZING post :D It was very informative, and I'm sure it was tons helpful to anyone considering getting involved in or already part of any educational herp presentations :D

Steve 06-01-03 11:12 PM

Good post, pretty informative

ReneeB 06-02-03 07:08 AM

WOW Thanks!.. I knew WHAt to do.. just couldn't get it into words.. and you did it perfectly..

stormyva 06-02-03 07:16 AM

Great stuff Brian!

unBOAlievable 06-02-03 07:55 AM

Very good and informative post.

Don't you just love it when the grade schoolers always ask " I saw a snake, what type was it"

quick story, I was presenting to a 5th grade class showing a South Florida king. I was telling them how I found it which is a cool story.
I had forgot to cap some plumbing under the house and my wife wanted me to do dishes. The sink was stopped up so as usual I put my hand in the drain and something started wiggling between my fingers (heartattack moment) the water drained and there was a kingsnake. Freaky to say the least. I spent a good while getting the plumbing apart and he was fine.
After the story to the kids I asked if anyone had any questions and 1 kid raised his hand. The only question they had was "you do dishes" I could not stop laughing.

that was 4 years ago, and the snake is still doing fine.

dlucka 06-02-03 07:58 AM

That's a great post!! Thanks to share your little trick!

Jeff Hathaway 06-02-03 08:58 AM

Great post BW!

I'll try to post some detailed thoughts on the subject; maybe tonight, but I just don't have time at the moment. We do things a little differently, and I disagree with you on a couple of points, but I like what you said!


Jeff Hathaway
Sciensational Sssnakes!!

BWSmith 06-02-03 10:00 AM

All of this I had to figure out on my own over the years. I am always looking for new methods and ways to make the programs better.

ReptiZone 06-02-03 10:20 AM

sweet @$$ post BW verry well put.

Samba 06-02-03 02:47 PM

BW That was an excellent, well-written post! I occasionally do educational programs (behalf of Samba's Reptile Rescue; SambasReptileRescue@Hotmail.Com) with animals I've rescued and decided to keep.

There were some good ideas in there that I hadn't thought to try! Just goes to show you can ALWAYS learn something new everyday!

As for snake size, usually I don't like to see children around large pythons, but my Burm, Bandula, is 14 feet long, and about as sweet as a pussycat. I never handle this snake alone, and during education displays I ALWAYS make sure his head/neck region is secured by two persons the whole time. I don't want to scare them, or give them the impression that the snake is bad, but at the same time I don't want accidents to happen. I've considered retiring Bandula (on account of his size), but he's just so patient and wonderful! What do you think?

(My other educational animals include Dahli, a Gerrhosaurus nigrolineatus, Iggy, green iguana, Darwin and Girl, Leopard Geckos (but these are my pets and breeders, not rescues), and finally Bo, a big 'ol Red-Eared Slider. My target audience usually consists of persons thinking about purchasing reptiles, and some animals represent 'good' reptilian pets vs. 'not so good' (i.e. large, potentially aggressive). My program is based around that. I also do the ecology talks, and sometimes we have native species on hand.

Once again, great post!

BWSmith 06-02-03 09:22 PM

I do not recommend very large snakes either. I think 6 feet is about perfect.

Jeff Hathaway 06-03-03 07:17 AM

Hey BW,

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!


Jeff Hathaway
Sciensational Sssnakes!!

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