KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) unveiled its latest exhibit in November, a “Living Lab” featuring snakes, lizards, ants, tarantulas and other critters. The creatures were included because they could be found in the average San Diegan’s backyard, but because of their behaviors (like being nocturnal or hibernation) or traits (like being reclusive), people rarely interact with them.
The animals are normally cared for in the Vivarium, located in the basement of the museum. Some are used for educational purposes but many never interacted with the public until being showcased in the exhibit. Part of the purpose is to let The Nat’s visitors learn more about the animals, as well as learn more about what the museum does.
“We have educational animals that we use for presentations in classrooms and stuff. And then we just get donations and rescues. They’ve all been down in the basement and nobody ever knew,” Stacey Vielma, animal care and engagement associate, explained.
The exhibit also helps people understand more about the local ecosystems in San Diego and what the less “cute” critters contribute to it.
“We want to show everybody that these are all our neighbors and they’re not necessarily the warm and fuzzy critters people might want to see more, but once you see them and their natural environments and see that they’re not threatening, they’re actually doing an important part in the ecosystem,” Vielma said. “Hopefully you’ll get to like them more and maybe you’ll protect them as well.”
All the creatures are native to the area, except the honeybees and green anoles. Their enclosures are carefully stocked with the sand, leaves, and rocks were locally sourced and hand-picked from their natural habitat.
“Even the crickets are pampered until they get fed to the other animals,” Vielma said. “We make sure that everybody’s happy.”
One of the joys Vielma has in the new exhibit is watching kids search the nooks and crannies of each enclosure to find the hiding critters. She said the kids are almost as excited as her about all the animals, insects and arachnids in the lab.
“To see them go crazy in the exhibit — it’s very fun,” she said. “Plus, I just love all the critters.”
Vielma does not have a favorite critter, but she likes checking up on the ants because they change every day, as well as the gopher snake and scorpions, who redecorate their enclosures all the time.
She can also recount some of the origin stories for the creatures on display, including the ant colony that started out as just a queen and six eggs a staff member at The Nat found in the desert. He brought them back and hand-reared them into the thriving colony it is today.
“The big red diamond rattlesnake was actually confiscated in a drug bust,” Vielma explained. The rattlesnake was in a Tupperware tub at the time with holes poked in the top and “wasn’t really looking good.” The California Department of Fish and Wildlife could not take the snake because they did not know its history, so it might not know how to survive in the wild or could spread diseases. The San Diego Zoo also rejected the snake because they did not need it, so The Nat took it in.
“Once they’re here, we definitely take care of them,” Vielma said.
Visitors can learn more about the critters in San Diego through the blend of science, storytelling, and live animals at the exhibit on the ground floor of the museum. The Living Lab exhibit will be on display until Sept. 1, 2020.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.