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Sunrise legacy: Clay Center revives animal exhibit

Chip Ellis
Despite their fearsome reputation, most tarantulas are not dangerous to humans. Their "hairy" feet and legs are protective but also help the spider cling to climbing surfaces.
Chip Ellis
Clay Center director of education Lewis Ferguson demonstrates the docile nature of a corn snake. Several snake skins decorate the office.
Chip Ellis
The Clay Center maintains a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The cockroaches are very popular with young children.
Chip Ellis
Pandora, a ball python, resides at the Clay Center.
Chip Ellis
Museum educator Laura Simpkins shares fruit with the Clay Center's four box turtles at lunchtime. The turtles include local celebrity Baby T, who once had her own social media accounts.
Chip Ellis
Beatrix, a Holland lop rabbit, is the newest addition to the mini zoo; Laura Simpkins and Lewis Ferguson help her relax, while Jamie Adamik, community arts manager and performing arts educator, looks on.
Chip Ellis
Clay Center museum educator Laura Simpkins cuddles Beatrix, a Holland lop rabbit.
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.
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 or call 304-561-3570 for more information.Live animal showFor 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 or 304-348-1249.
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