Next came the snakes. An educator on staff who was a herpetologist left two of her snakes with the Clay Center when she moved. (Herpetology is a branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles.) Today, four corn snakes, one ball python, one Baird's rat snake and one ribbon snake call the Clay Center home and are frequent hands-on educators onsite and in the community.
"Snakes are great travelers," said Ferguson. "We take lidded containers, of course, but they can go places in a simple pillowcase. They are excellent outreach animals."
Two albino underwater frogs round out the herpetology section of the Clay Center's animal outreach.
The spider-in-residence is Stella, a Chilean rose hair tarantula; her species, Grammostola rosea, is considered the most common species of tarantula in the United States. The Clay Center has rescued tarantulas in the past, but this one came directly from a pet store. She's docile but easily startled, and when startled she runs. No one wants a running tarantula, and children learn fast to be quiet and still around her.
Reptiles, arachnids and bugs are easy to keep, but you can't snuggle with them. "Every now and then we go cuddly," said Ferguson. After losing three sets of notoriously short-lived rats and a Chinese water dragon, staff members decided to consult with their veterinarian adviser at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital, in Charleston, to find a warm mammal that would stick around for a while.
The recommendation? A Holland lop rabbit. Her name is Beatrix, after Beatrix Potter, the beloved author and illustrator of Peter Rabbit. She's been at the Clay Center for a couple of months, and, Ferguson said, laughing, "She's going to be great once she calms down." Lops are known for their sweet temperaments but also their determination.
Ferguson is excited about the animal renaissance. He believes that interacting with animals in an educational setting is crucial for children to develop respect for living creatures. He recommends a "two-finger touch for scales and fur." The gentle and limited touch technique keeps both the animal and the child touching it calm, which leads to trust and more positive interaction.
Ferguson said there's nothing like the reward of seeing a child's eyes light up when they interact with a new kind of animal for the first time.
Young people learn how to compare and to contrast the needs and behaviors of different categories of animals, and in the process they begin to understand them. They also begin to develop some wisdom that may keep them safe some day when they encounter an animal outside of the structured environment of the Clay Center. "We caution them when you see a snake in the wild, it's best to look at it and walk away."
But at the Clay Center, when a child says, "Wow! That's a real snake. Can I really touch it?" the answer is a definite yes, as long as you use the two-finger touch.
The Clay Center welcomes questions about animals in general and about their animals in particular. Visit www.theclaycenter.org or call 304-561-3570 for more information.
Live animal show
For more animal fun at the Clay Center, plan to attend animal advocate and wildlife educator Jack Hanna's "Into the Wild Live" at 8 p.m. April 19. The program will feature live animals and video footage from Hanna's adventures around the world. Hanna's program will be preceded by "Eco Party Family Fun Night," from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gauc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.