Animal Keeper (Grades 6-10)
When Hazel Davies goes to work, she is greeted by leaping lizards, curious snakes, and tortoises that mistake her green sneakers for snacks. Although it might sound like Davies works at a zoo, she's actually in charge of managing the animals that star in exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The live exhibits feature a colorful cast of creatures, from blue butterflies and red frogs to a green iguana nicknamed "Iggy." Museum visitors enjoy live-action attractions because the animals add an element of surprise to displays. But an animal needs more than a cute face or bright colors to earn a spot in an exhibition hall.
Curators at the museum carefully choose animals that will help bring to life an important concept in an exhibit. For example, for The Butterfly Conservatory, which explores the importance of butterflies in the web of life, curators decided to include hundreds of live butterflies.
Every fall, in preparation for the butterfly exhibition, Davies imports hundreds of these insects by working with butterfly farms around the world. When the butterflies arrive, Davies releases them into an artificial habitat that visitors can enter. There, humans and butterflies mingle-which the museum hopes gives visitors a deeper appreciation of these delicate insects.
Bringing butterflies-or any other type of animal-into an exhibition requires detailed research, says Davies. Staff at the museum must first find out if the animal they want to showcase is available from breeders. That is important because the museum wants to minimize the collection of wild animals.
Davies and her staff must also research whether the museum can stock the proper food for the various animals. Storing sugary-sweet nectar for butterflies is simple enough, but some critters have more complicated cravings.
For their exhibition, Frogs: A Chorus of Colors, the museum showcased 67 dart poison frogs. In the wild, the frogs eat toxic ants that allow the amphibians to release poison from their skin. Since the museum did not want poisonous animals wandering around their display cases, a meal of their favorite ants was not an option for the frogs. Instead, Davies fed the dart poison frogs fruit flies, crickets, and wax worms. That way she rendered the amphibians harmless. "They got [all the nutrients] they needed from what we fed them," says Davies. "But it's safer to handle them when they're not poisonous."
A GREAT CAREER
Davies loves her job because it keeps her on her toes. For instance, take the water monitor displayed in the Lizards and Snakes exhibition. What to serve this sharp-toothed lizard? In the wild, it uses its forked tongue to "smell" its prey-live rats. But the museum isn't in the business of raising packs of rats, so when it came to mealtime, more imaginative strategies were needed. Davies had to dangle a dead rat from the tip of long tongs so the 1-meter (3-foot) long lizard could sniff it out. "Every morning, I would find the lizard waiting at the door for me-almost like a dog," she says.
And then there was the time when she brought a breakfast of crickets to a 30-centimeter-(1-foot) long lizard that climbs and clings to trees with gripping toe pads. The lizard - a leaf tailed gecko - leapt into the air and landed on her face. "I thought it was asleep," says Davies. "It was funny, but after that I was more aware of where it was every time I opened the cage."