CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Sunrise Museum closed the doors of its animal exhibit, Charleston's children lost their wild things.
Anyone who grew up visiting the Sunrise Museum can recall vivid moments of connection with the creatures on Myrtle Road.
"Everyone talks about the python, but for me it was the buffalo," said 30-year-old Evan Osborn. "You'd walk down the stairs, and a buffalo head and torso was mounted on the wall. I loved to touch its glass eyeballs."
Christi Davis Somerville, 46, remembers handling hedgehogs; but that was that was tame compared to getting a boa constrictor stuck in her hair when she taught the "Creepy Crawlies" program as a young adult. Jon Mani, 38, liked the chinchillas and ferrets when he was a boy. Mark Burdette, 41, said when he was in elementary school he "liked watching the python eat dinner."
Today's adults who roamed Sunrise as children are nostalgic too about tadpoles, a sloth and a spider monkey.
Those were the days -- but those days are slowly creeping, crawling, slithering and hopping back.
Lewis Ferguson is the director of education at the Clay Center, and he knows the Sunrise history well.
"I grew up with Sunrise and worked at Sunrise, which was a thrill for me," he said. "I was excited to move down here with the Clay Center in 2003. We are very proud of what we did up on the hill. Animals were a big part of that."
When Ferguson joined Sunrise in 1993, it was just opening a new science hall and closing its animal exhibit; he said he was impressed by the care Sunrise staff members took to interview potential owners at zoos and other museums that were taking the animals. A science teacher adopted the chinchillas and continued to do some programming with Sunrise, bringing the "furries" back for guest visits.
The Clay Center was without animals for several years, choosing to focus on physics and chemistry. "We had these great new exhibits," said Ferguson, "but, for programming, we just thought it made sense to bring back animals. Animals speak to life sciences, to biology."
Things started small, literally, with a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. "Hissers" have no wings, and are excellent climbers, able to scale smooth glass. Clinging to human fingers is a breeze. The Clay Center partnered with an entomologist, who brought the cockroaches for an event day, and the decision was simple. The colony started to grow.
"The kids went gaga for them. They loved them," said Ferguson. He admits he has fallen a little bit in love himself from the experience of watching the children discover the cockroaches.
After the hissers came the turtles. The Clay Center has four "rescue" box turtles, three adults and one juvenile affectionately dubbed Baby T. The littlest turtle makes occasional public appearances and once had her own Facebook page.
Though box turtles can live up to 100 years in the wild, they are easily stressed by overhandling and require a lot of care. They do not make good pets, and once taken out of the wild cannot return. The education staff at the Clay Center is looking into ways to bring the turtles safely into the museum garden with an enclosure that protects them but gets them outside. Baby T needs help getting enough vitamin D, and sunlight would benefit her.