We talk about the first animals we've trained on, a little about the training process, our favorite animals to work with, getting over fears of animals, and how each animal has its own personality.

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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar: a podcast where we shop around for answers to the scaliest questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric, and one of the first friends I made at the museum was a screaming hairy armadillo. Our educators get to train on handling our feathered and furry residents so they can act as animal ambassadors, teaching our visitors about habitats, adaptations, conservation, and many other subjects. And when we take questions after a live animal presentation, we're often asked how each educator gets paired up with their critter counterpart. My guest today is Lauren from our programs team, who has been working with animals up close and personal for many years. Lauren, thanks for joining me.

LAUREN: Hey, thanks for having me here.

ERIC: Now, you came to the museum with a lot of experience working with animals already. So how did you pick your first animal to train on? Did you go straight to a favorite one?

LAUREN: Yes. The first animal that I picked to train on was our common boa. For anybody who hasn't met him, his name is Belize. He is seven feet long. He's coming up on 20 pounds. And the immediate reaction I got was like, that's the thing you're picking? The first one?

ERIC: Yeah you walked into the Animal Center, and you were like, give me the biggest snake you have.

LAUREN: Yes. And then once they found out that I have 10 years of experience as a herpetologist, and boas are like my bread and butter, they were like, oh, okay, this is fine. But it was really interesting, because getting any amount of surprise almost came as a surprise to me. But us as educators, we come from so many varied backgrounds that, you know, it's not a typical thing for someone to have a bunch of experience working with snakes. I mean, your background is space. There's people whose backgrounds is rocks.

ERIC: So, yeah, one of my favorite things is when someone asks me, oh, what did you study in school? And I'm holding a skunk. And I'm like, asteroids and their surface mineralogy. Because we're all generalists, but we all have our strong areas. When people ask me after a presentation about rockets, I'm like, yeah, I have studied rocket science. But then someone else does a presentation on rockets, and they get asked what they do. And it's like, I studied human evolution. And they learned this presentation last month. So we all wear a lot of hats, but some of our live animal presenters have more experience to start with than others. I mean, you had stories about handling alligators from your very first day at our museum.

LAUREN: Yeah, in college I studied zoology and my primary focus was herpetology, which is reptile and amphibian biology. A lot of people go, how does one get into that? And my elevator pitch answer is that I was every child who wanted to be a paleontologist when they were a child. I never grew out of it. But then when I got into college, I realized that paleontology was mostly studying rocks, which was just not my jam. I wanted to play with with living things. And I was like, well, dinosaurs are dead. So I can't really hang out with them. But birds and reptiles are alive. And they're about as close as you can get.

ERIC: I had the opposite approach when I started, because I did not walk in and say, I'm an experienced animal handler. And here's what I want to do. I got to my first day of work super nervous, because I didn't know if we got to pick which animals we work with. And I didn't know if I was going to be assigned an animal based on which ones were available or anything. And my boss could tell I was kind of nervous. And I was like, do we get to pick which animals we work with? And she was like, yes, we do. I was like, okay, good. Because if you had handed me a tarantula to crawl up my arm, it would not have ended well for either one of us or anyone in the audience. So yes, we get to pick our animals, we get to go in and figure out which one is going to work for us, which one we're, you know, excited to work with. And we don't have to work with any of the ones we really don't want to.

LAUREN: Yeah, and everyone's version of that is really different too, like, I actually find that almost more interesting than what people do gravitate towards. It's like, what's the thing that you're like, absolutely under no circumstances? I'm curious what yours would be. It sounds like tarantulas are pretty high on the list.

ERIC: It took me years, but I'm pretty proud because when I used to go to other museums and zoos, I wouldn't go into the reptile house, just in case there was a big spider in there. And I didn't want to turn to another tank and look into it trying to find the reptiles and find out that it's actually a giant spider right above my head. Ever since I was little. So coming to the museum and working here was really tough, to go into the Animal Center where there's many large spiders of all kinds, and knowing that while I was working with one animal, all the spiders were right behind me. But it also kind of helped me acclimate and get over the aversion. And then I decided I kind of wanted to work towards it. I started work with a scorpion, which is kind of like my gateway arachnid. And then I went for it. And I trained on the largest spider in the world, the goliath bird-eating tarantula. And it was hard. It helps that it stayed in its tank, and you didn't have to pick it up or do anything. You just picked up a tank and wheeled it out and talked with people. But it was a spider the size of a dinner plate. And when it moved, I would get that visceral, you should run away now reaction that you have to overcome. But I eventually did it. And it was awesome.

LAUREN: I'm so proud of you. Especially because with bird eater, sometimes, depending on how large they are, when they move, you can hear their exoskeleton kind of rubbing against each leg. And I know that was probably a lot.

ERIC: Yeah, it was okay when it wasn't moving. Anytime that it moved, it was really hard for me. But I got over it. And we had some great interactions out in the exhibit halls, because people would come up. And you know, tarantulas are big spiders. And when I'd say, I have a tarantula, people are expecting a spider of a certain size, and then they spot it. And it's like, three times bigger. It's just right there in front of you. And we had many people who literally would like jump back. But we would get that for all kinds of animals. I mean, I had people react exactly like that to frogs, because everyone has different animals that just...

LAUREN: ...set off their nope radar. Yeah, I guess like my nope radar animal is different than something I wouldn't be interested in working with. I'm very similar to you in that if there is something that I have apprehension around, I tend to be drawn to it even more. And I had a similar experience actually with scorpions. I was never afraid of them, really. But I definitely had a little bit of like, my blood pressure went up when I was told that I was going to be working with them at my old job, but I was like, I'm gonna do it. And they became one of my favorite things to handle, especially the big ones. They kind of just want to hang most of the time, which is pretty cool. And it was like, this isn't that different than working with any other cold blooded creature? My nope animal is centipedes. Not for me. Especially the big ones, not my thing. Millipedes are great. Centipedes. Absolutely. No.

ERIC: We have some great millipedes at the museum.

LAUREN: I love the millipedes. I don't like the centipedes. There's a big difference for me.

ERIC: Oh, what is the difference?

LAUREN: So they are two different groups of animals. And millipedes are herbivorous, so they only eat plants, and centipedes are carnivores so they eat anything that is alive. Millipedes cannot bite you. They don't have the equipment. They just kind of have little grasping parts for eating plants. Centipedes can, and are venomous. If you're just looking at one, I mean, it's not like most of our listeners are gonna go up to any one of these leggy bois and be like, excuse me, do you eat plants? The way to tell is that millipedes have legs that are in line with the body underneath it directly. They don't stick out to the side. Centipede legs are out to the sides very, very obviously. And they often have visible pincers. It's generally really easy to to tell visually, the difference, even though they are both long and have lots of legs.

ERIC: And something that's surprising that we've talked about before in other episodes is that the animals definitely have personalities. And you have to take that into account when you're training on them. Sometimes we say, I want to train on that snake and our animal keepers will say, that snake is easygoing. That's a great fit for you. When I was first starting on reptiles, I wanted to train on one snake and they told me, you know what? Why don't you try this other snake first, he's more chill. He's a better starter snake. You'll get used to handling snakes and then you can kind of move up to a snake that needs just a little bit more comfort and experience.

LAUREN: Oh yeah. I've worked with a lot of very large snakes. And people will look at them and assume it's kind of a one-size-fits-all situation. At my last job, I had two albino Burmese pythons, and one was named Honey. She was 15 feet long and albino so she had that really beautiful yellow color. And she was just, her name was honey because she was so sweet. And then there was Velveeta who was our other one. And Velveeta was crazy. He wasn't aggressive, he just was like a wild man. He also didn't have great eyesight. So he would get confused about what was going on a lot and would just kind of wild out. That's two snakes that to anybody would basically look identical. I do tend to really like working with things with big personalities, which is why I really love working with, specifically, large monitor lizards. Big lizards tend to be incredibly intelligent. So they're super easy to train to do different behaviors. And that makes them super fun to work with too. But yeah, even among lizards, there's huge differences, like the difference between a savannah monitor and an iguana is night and day, then you get down to the individuals. And it's just like dogs or cats or any other animals.

ERIC: Yeah, I've worked with a bunch of different animals at the museum. But the biggest personalities that I worked with were our ducks. They just absolutely loved being on stage, they were super patient, I would take them out for our storytime show for preschoolers, and we'd read a story about ducks. And then I would go to take them out. And they had this little enclosure that they could walk around in. And I would open the carrier door and they would just explode out and start quacking so loud. And the kids would love it because they would just look around and quack, quack quack the whole time they were on the stage. I would throw them their food, and they would both run after it. But one was always quicker than the other one. And it became a game to see if I could actually feed both of them. And then when I went to put them away, it was like a Three Stooges routine, like they would run underneath my feet, and then I would eventually get them back in the carrier and they would just totally steal the show. As soon as I brought them out. It was like I wasn't even there. Because they were definitely the stars.

LAUREN: That's incredible. And it is also incredible how just certain animals are like showstoppers like that, they have so much charisma. And yeah, it's like you might as well not even be there because they just steal the show. My savannah monitor, Vinny, was a programs animal for a long time at my old job. And it was just kind of like, you take out Vinnie, and he's goofy. He's smart, he's fast. He's clever. And kids just eat him up. There's just certain animals with those personalities. I love that you worked with ducks like that. That's amazing.

ERIC: So to sort of wrap up, I know you've already picked up way more animals than our educators normally do. Because that's your scene. What are you training on next? Do you have another animal in mind?

LAUREN: So I'm almost up to 10 animals at our museum in the short time I've been there. My ongoing project is a kestrel named Clarence, who I love with every cell in my body. He is very sweet. But he can also be stubborn and sassy. And he has stolen my heart. He likes to beg for food from me, I'll walk by and he'll do the baby bird thing where birds will open their mouths. He's like, oh, it's the nice lady who gives me treats. And we're slowly working on getting him more used to going out on stage, he really doesn't like going in his crate. Especially with birds, there is a lot that goes into developing a relationship with the birds, because with birds trust is everything. And then feeling comfortable enough to do what you need to do to get get the jesses on, which is their equipment that goes around their legs to help keep them stable and safe when you're handling them. And when they're being shown to people. There's a lot that goes into it. So that's been a several month process of just me and him getting comfy with each other. And him feeling safe enough to go onstage.

ERIC: Yeah, we'd like to say that when we train on the handling an animal, the keepers are training us, but the animals are training us too. The animals are like, here's what I like, no I don't like being held like that. Yes, I like that kind of food. And eventually you just get comfortable with each other and then you get to go out on stage and teach.

LAUREN: Yeah, it is a process for sure.

ERIC: All right, Lauren, thanks so much for telling us all about your animal experiences.

LAUREN: Thank you so much here. This has been awesome. Really happy to be here.

ERIC: You can meet many of our animal residents up close by visiting the Museum of Science, including our new exhibit New England Climate Stories, which details how many local species are impacted by climate change. And while you're home, you can check out our virtual exhibits involving our animals, like our leaf cutter ant live webcam. Until next time, keep asking questions.

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