In the basement of the Academy of Natural Sciences, I followed a line of children to the Live Animals Center of the museum. Michelle Morici, a naturalist at the museum, awaited us with a huge turkey vulture perched on her arm. This bird was named Spirit. Like many of the animals at the museum, Spirit had been injured and then rescued. She was hit by a car as a young bird and was sent to rehab for a brain injury. After recovering, she was too old to learn how to survive in the wild and found a home at the Academy.
“What does she like to do?” a younger child asked Michelle thoughtfully. When Michelle responded that vultures like to shred things and that the museum keeps Spirit occupied with telephone books, the child’s mother smirked. It seemed she was thinking, “That doesn’t sound too different from looking after my kids.”
Michelle attended the University of Delaware, where she majored in Animal Science with a minor in Wildlife Conservation. Education is her passion. When she’s not busy at the Academy of Natural Sciences, she substitute teaches in central New Jersey. After the show, while the rest of the audience crowded around the displays showing off bunny rabbits and ducks, I caught up with Michelle to ask her some questions about her amazing job and what it’s like working with animals everyday.
Q: What made you decide to become a naturalist?
A: I decided my senior year of college that, as much as I love animals, I wanted to teach with them instead of being a keeper. I love the interaction with the public so being a naturalist was a good fit for me.
Q: What is it like being a naturalist in a big city like Philadelphia?
A: I would say its like being a naturalist anywhere. Just because we are in a city doesn’t mean there isn’t nature around. There are a bunch of parks here where you can find all sorts of nature. You just have to know what you are looking for. When I go outside for a walk at lunch I’m often looking up for red tail hawks and coopers hawks that may be flying around. I do the same thing when I’m home too it’s just not as loud there.
Q:What are the different animals at the Academy?
A: We have a wide range of animals in our collection. Our bird include crows, ducks, parrots, owls, hawks, falcons, and vultures. As for mammals, we have rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, hedgehogs, skunks, opossums, kinkajous, coatis, and foxes. We also have reptiles including snakes, turtles, tortoises, lizards, and alligators. And, of course, we have LOTS of bugs—tarantulas, scorpions, beetles, millipedes, and walking sticks.
Q: What are your primary responsibilities at the museum?
A: My job title is safari overnight and scout badge coordinator. Each of the teacher naturalists here has another part of their job (besides the everyday teaching). They range from doing outreach programs, adult programs, camp, running dinosaur hall, etc. My responsibilities as a teacher naturalist include teaching classes onsite and offsite, doing shows, and working with the animals in the live animal center (to get them on program). The other half of my job is the scouts and overnights, which run from October-May for scouts and January to May for overnights. I’m in charge of running the workshops and overnights, scheduling staff to teach workshops and overnights and training new staff. There are various other things but that is the bulk of my job.
Q: What is the safari overnight program?
A: Our safari overnight program is like night at the museum. We have about 14 nights a year (for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and families) where people get a chance to participate in a lot of fun activities once the museum closes and then sleep over next to the exhibits (near the T Rex, the lions, polar bears, and more). I run this program from the hiring of staff to work the nights and then I usually manage about 12 of them a year and sleep over as well. For the scout overnights they work on certain badges (just like the workshops during the day) and for our family and friends overnights they get to pick from a range of activities to do. We also do a live animal show at all overnights and there is a movie at the end as well.
Q: It seems like you work with kids a lot. Is it difficult keeping animals calm around young children?
A: It’s actually more difficult keeping the kids calm when the animals move around a bit. The animals go through a training program so we usually start off having them around staff, then doing small programs, then larger programs and finally multiple programs. Most of the animals also go offsite and some are even touched by the public. Again this happens over the course of weeks to months.
Q: Is it more hectic taking care of animals or teaching a classroom of kids?
A: I mostly work with the kids. There are days when I will go down and help with animal care, but for the most part our keepers, volunteers and interns do that. So I guess at any point either could be more hectic.
Q: What has been one of your most interesting days on the job, working with animals?
A: Everyday at my job is very different. I love teaching classes, doing shows and working with the animals so honestly they are all interesting days.
Q: One of your worst days at work?
A: I can honestly say I love my job. I tell people that all the time. If I wanted to work for the money I would do something else (and something much closer to home) so there aren’t any bad days. OK, I lied a bit—when I was training with the crows one day I got pooped on and that was pretty gross. I also recently slipped on a chick head (but I caught myself). That was not a fun mess to clean up. But, howmany people can say they slipped on a chick head at work?
Q: That’s definitely an odd experience at work! What do you use chicks for?
A: In addition to feeding our raptors mice and rats they also sometimes get chicks. Our crows will on occasion steal chicks and mice from under their neighbor’s cage (if they drop them). So on that day I would imagine the crow stole the chick and then had it outside her cage (which is where I slipped).
Q: What is your favorite animal at the museum?
A: One of my favorite animals to work with is our fox. She has a great personality and people really enjoy seeing her (because usually she’s sleeping in her cave during the day). I also love working with the birds. I train with both of our crows everyday and they sometimes can be a challenge but I still love their individual personalities.
Q: Do you have a least favorite animal?
A: To be honest I don’t really have a least favorite animal. There are some animals that I don’t enjoy handling as much as others but they all have a purpose here so I don’t really mind.
Q: I know that many of the animals at the Academy of Natural Sciences were once pets abandoned by their owners, but what is your opinion on zoos and keeping wild animals in captivity?
A: All of our animals are here for a reason- to educate the public and give them the chance to see (and learn) about animals they maybe never heard off. Zoos do the same thing just on a bigger scale. Many people will never get a chance to go out on a safari or visit a rainforest so I think people being able to see them in a zoo or here at the Academy gives them the chance to connect with the animals.
Q: What would you suggest students do in Philadelphia to experience nature?
A: GO OUTSIDE! There is nature everywhere so start off by going outside.
Budding naturalists may be interested in a few events around the city that Michelle suggested. Nerd out with your sweetie on Valentine’s Day: The Academy of Natural Sciences will be hosting the upcoming “Mega-Bad” movie night on February 14th.
Mary Sydnor is the Assistant Editor of Drexel’s Center for Cultural Outreach.
Photograph courtesy of Dennis Murphy/ANSP.