Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Portfolio Building 2: Live Programming - Sciensational Sssnakes!!


Live programming is a great way to build up your portfolio and practice science communication. There are a ton of different programs across Canada that you can volunteer or work with. In this post, our snake guy James Baxter-Gilbert talks about his experiences in live programming with live animals.

In the town of Orillia Ontario there is a house that is home to well over 200 scaly critters, and a crew of people that care for them as well as the world’s perception of them. This house is the Sciensation Sssnales!! headquarters and it is soon to be the location of Scales Nature Park. The company is owned and operated by Jeff Hathaway and Jenny Peirce, their goal, to better public understanding of reptiles, particularly snakes. Initially part time, it became Jenny’s full-time occupation late in 1996, and Jeff’s in 2001. On average they talk to 25,000 people every year about the amazing reptiles of Canada and try to customize the shows to the animals indigenous to the area they are presenting in.


James working with Sciensational Sssnakes!! in Alberta. He's holding a Black Rat snake.

I had the pleasure of working with Scisensational Sssnakes!! for two consecutive summers and it is hard to find a better crash course in public engagement and science communication, particularly on a topic that many people feel strongly against. Personally I love snakes, well all reptiles really, but I certainly have a soft spot for snakes. Many people though do not share my, and Sciensational Sssnakes!! views, of these fantastic creatures. So it became their mission statement to better understanding and feelings toward snakes and reptiles in general by conducting public outreach in the form of shows.



James at the  at the Rogers Centre (Toronto, ON) for a pregame show.

The typical show has two parts, and consists of five native species of snake, two native species of turtle and two exotic species of snake. This combination allow for the presenter to discuss the importance of conservation of several species and raise awareness regarding native fauna and which species make good pets (corn snakes) and which snakes do not (native species and large snakes like Burmese pythons and Boa constrictors). Each species is allotted a short segment (couple of minutes) so tell the public some interesting facts about the species and reptiles in general.

It becomes important to engage the public often throughout this part of the show to keep their attention. This can be accomplished several ways, one is to have multiple people working the individual segments of the show, this allow for the lecture style portion of the show to remain fresh and dynamic. Another technique is to have questions for the public built into the show, relying on a back and forth with the public (sometimes with leading questions), effectively holding their attention as well.

The second portion of the show involves actually allowing the public to hold, touch, and even wear some of the animals used in the show. This is likely the riskiest part of the show, not for the public but for the snakes. It is important to monitor the snake’s behavior the entire time to make sure the animal is not getting too stressed. Certain species are better at hands on engagement with the public and having people that know the snakes  is a good way to read the animals behavior to ensure that all is going well during a show. Many staff even live at the Sci-Snake HQ, taking care of the animals.

They mostly working within Ontario, but in the past few years, in cooperation with Laurentian University, the “Reptiles at Risk on the Road” project has taken Sci-Snake staff across Canada, shows from coast to coast, spreading the good word about Canada reptiles. This was likely my favorite experience with this job. We got a van and trailer and drove across the country just talking to people about what we where passionate about, snakes and other reptiles. Moving from town to town, meeting new people every day, we learned more about the rest of Canada, while we teach the rest of Canada about what we know.

Sometimes during a show, especially if you are having an off day, it seems like the crowd just isn’t getting it, or more likely you are not putting it out there properly. But afterward when the odd keener finds you, and thanks you for coming and tells you that they really learned a lot, it is just an amazing feeling. The feeling that there is a chance that you just triggered the spark, one that someone once triggered in you a long time ago, to learn more, maybe one day study reptiles. That is by far the best feeling, only bettered by days that you are in the groove. The show goes perfectly and public engagement was at an all time high, these are rock star days, when everything you have said about biology, conservation, and ecology was readily taken up by a knowledge hungry audience and the impact is seen instantly when the live handling begins.

While I working with this amazing company, and all it even more amazing people, I was able to realize how much I enjoyed public outreach education, as well as how much work there still is to do for reptiles and the vast need for conservation and understand of the limited reptiles we have in Canada. It is really rewarding to see people’s fears and misunderstand melt away just after hearing you talk only talk for a few minutes and then go as far as to hold, pet and maybe wear what they were so recently terrified of.

- James

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