I Sold My Soul to Science

I have been associated with the Museum in some form or fashion for over 10 years. Not only do I work for the Museum, I live with and am married to the Museum as well.  During this time I generally get asked three questions.  The first question is always, “What is it like to be married to / live with David?” My husband David Temple is the Associate Curator of Paleontology.  If you don’t like rocks and fossils, he will be around to convert you shortly.

People assume that we have some crazy life, but mostly we are just really busy. We truly enjoy being at our house (both at the same time, which makes it more difficult). I like to think that our house is styled after the Victorian period.  Dave likes to think of it as Neo Adams.

We get the weirdest questions about our house. As if we wouldn’t have all the standards that other houses have. So to prove that this is a fact, I have some pictures. (The house is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

We will begin with the kitchen. To prove that we are normal, here is our fridge. Like everyone else, we tack important bits of info to the fridge so they don’t get lost.


Like everyone else, we have scorpion and cobra whiskey on the fridge stored neatly under a Thai head dress. We have the odd assortment of frozen foods, like butterfly wings. And dead animals.

We like coffee in the morning. And we keep our pets next to the coffee maker on the counter.

As for the Dermestid Beetles.  They are actually my pet project.

We are trying to make skeleton mounts for the Education Collections and  I thought that the beetles might help with one or two dried frogs we had managed to acquire. This is about a month into the process.  The frog in this case had been mummified for about a year before giving him to the beetles.  A smaller, fresher frog, only took about two weeks.

I love baking cupcakes. Believe me, there was talk of an intervention. Dave loves to cook.  The kitchen is the central area in our house, as it is for most people.  We often have a variety of projects beside baking or cooking though.

In our kitchen, we have a hutch where we keep cook books. Cook books are safe and normal, I am sure you would agree. Dave collects cookbooks of various cultures and time periods and cuisines.

We have a room in the house that started off as the study/office, but it wasn’t widely used as most of the activities in this room ended up in the kitchen anyway. SO, I claimed it as my sewing room. Quilting often keeps me from killing my family. It is a great creative outlet and I am surrounded by inspiration.

 

Our back yard is often neglected, but we do seem to have an abundance of Aloe Vera for some reason.  Occasionally we water them and call it gardening. Directly next to the Aloe is my bucket o’ bones.  If you have read my previous posts on the Museum’s blog, you will be happy to note that the bones have made it inside and are being sorted. Plus, there is the bullfrog rescue operation Dave has started.

The second question I am always asked is, “What is it like to work at the Museum?”

The Museum is a cruel mistress.  You work long hours on weird projects, often on the weekends and you love every minute of it. The Museum is home.  Your house is where you keep your stuff when not at home. Here are a few shots of my office so you can envision the crazy. Note the Tapir skeleton in the background. 

The third question I am asked is, “You must learn a lot working at a Museum, right?”  You would think so, but yet I seem to be filled with only useless information.  I think that I might have a shot on Jeopardy. So, what have I learned working here?

 I know that the Rock Hyrax’s closest relative is the elephant.

 That Thomas Jefferson fully believed that Lewis and Clark would find a live mammoth when they mapped the west.

 

That the cone snail is one of the most deadly animals in the world, but is also used for pain medication. 

That it is better to have a hippo head than no hippo at all.

 

That the First Lady can’t walk under swordfish

 That the admin elevator is the exact right size for a tapir

 

That the giant squid has the largest eyeball of any animal

 And that it isn’t unusual to find your place of work altered on a daily basis.

 

But most importantly I have learned that without the support of the Museum volunteers, our patrons and the Houston community, the Museum could not provide the quality exhibits and programming that we do!

Got Venom?

Whether you know it or not, we have a small collection of venomous animals at the Museum. Yes, I do have to handle them and yes, we do take them to schools – in very secure, locked cages. This isn’t recreational handling, either. I use proper safety tools, like snake hooks and tongs; large, heavy-duty containers; and, of course, a back-up person.

There is a risk of getting bitten – just like there is a risk of getting beaned in the head with hockey puck. While I have experienced the latter and do not recommend it, I have been fortunate enough to avoid the former.

Venomous animals are dangerous. They deserve respect, just like all living things. Okay, so maybe a little more respect, since some of them can kill you. I have always been fascinated by dangerous animals. But keeping them is another story entirely. Not so much the danger…okay, maybe the danger. I haven’t worked with a lot of different, venomous species, but those that I have been exposed to have been both awesome and frightening.

My first training exercise involved pulling a young Black Forest Cobra from his terrarium and putting him into a tall trash can (Rubbermaid makes some tough stuff!). The first part was easy. He rode the hook, staying loosely coiled, and was alert while I settled him into the can. After I did the hard part – cleaning his terrarium – I had to pull him back out of the can. Well, he must have seen this coming. Have you ever played with a Jack-in-a-box toy? The nice part about the toy is that there is a musical cue when it might pop open. Well, not so with the snake. Just as I would get the hook over the edge of the can, this 5-foot snake (not so little) would pop straight up, looking right at me. Slightly nerve-wracking.

So, I moved to the other side, but sure enough, here he comes, straight up with his head about 6 inches over the edge of the can. Needless to say, I did need help getting him out – it was my first time. I remember being really nervous and very hyped up after that – I still remember the snake fondly.

Rattler
Creative Commons License photo credit: el__vaquero

Since then, I have mainly worked with native species of venomous snakes. Not to say some of ours aren’t as ornery as the cobra, because I can personally vouch for some bad-attitude rattlesnakes. All in all, I would have to say that I enjoy working with venomous snakes. It was not something I had signed on to do, or was even a goal. The opportunity appeared and I thought “why not?” I have to admit, it is kind of fun when people ask my husband, “what does your wife do?” and he says, “she plays with rattlesnakes.” He does go on to explain, but that first expression is too funny!

Now add in another factor – pregnancy. No, not of the snakes - mine. This adds another whole level of risk that I am not willing to take. Thus begins an interesting journey in training another (read: willing) person to do the job of handling our hot species.

During summer camp, the Animal Room is very fortunate to have an intern. For the past few summers, one of our interns has been Stefan. Stefan attends Texas A&M and is a tried-and-true herper. His Herpetology field class, projects and summers with us have given him a lot of exposure to snakes, turtles and amphibians. I am confident in his ability to handle our venomous snakes – even if he does get really excited about it beforehand. Put him in front of the snake with a hook in his hand and he is all business. This works out great for us during the summer.

For the rest of the year, our current part-time Animal Technician Ben is the other person you will see in the pictures below. Ben is a certified Veterinary Technician and very excited about being trained to work with our hot snakes. In the pictures, you’ll see me showing Ben how to use the hooks to pick up our practice snakes (rope and plastic tubing); Ben showing me how easy it is; Stefan showing Ben how he hooks one of our copperheads; and Ben showing us how he can do it too.

The fun part is that once the snakes are aware of what we are doing, they are less apt to “ride” the hook. They get more active, move away from the hook when touched and even get cranky after a few go-rounds. Both of the “boys” are very capable and I do not doubt in their abilities, but…I am a natural worrier. The hardest part is standing back and watching, trying not to hover or be a backseat director. We have safety protocols, are near several excellent hospitals and have emergency phone numbers posted nearby. Plus, the Houston Zoo is next door. Safety first!

  Chris and Ben with a little practice “hooking.”
Ben showing Chris how easy it is and Chris just “showing.”  
  Stefan making it look easy as Ben learns from the sidelines.
Ben working with a copperhead, while Stefan acts as back-up and offers tips.  
  From the snake’s point of view, Ben hooking one of our copperheads.