Where the wild things are

Amy Cooknick

Most Kent State students know the campus is home to some unique critters.

A student walking from point A to point B anywhere on campus is certain to run into at least one hawk, chipmunk or, most famously, a pesky black squirrel.

However, if a student happens to walk by Cunningham Hall without ever stopping in room 29, he or she is going to miss the most fascinating creatures on campus.

Room 29, the basement of the science hall, is home to some of the coolest critters in Kent.

Stepping into the room for the first time, one doesn’t know where to begin looking.

The room is old and in need of repair, as students and professors who spend their time there are quick to point out, but it is filled with life.

Glass aquariums line three walls of the room, with even more tanks on a desk in the center.

For anyone who dares to inspect closer, these tanks are not filled with your everyday fishies, but with reptiles, arachnids and roaches (Oh my!), part of the biology department’s animal collection.

This collection extends to the greenhouses outside where red-eared slider turtles make their home among tiger barbs, mollies, a plecostomus (aka a fish) and many other tropical fish.

Working clockwise around room 29, visitors meet Curtis, the Sebae Sea anemone; Coheed the Australian blue-tongued skink lizard; Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd the Leopard geckoes who feed on blatta lateralis roaches that are also housed in room 29; Esteban the amelanistic corn snake; Angus the ball python; a six-and-a-half foot red-tailed boa constrictor; a pink-toed tarantula; and an Asian forest scorpion.

Also in the room is a female praying mantis, which is currently awaiting the arrival of about 100 offspring in the spring. The baby mantises will hatch out of the egg sack hanging in the corner of the tank.

Professor James Blank, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and tour guide for the day, explained how female mantises chop off the male’s head after mating.

This radical feminism wasn’t the only crazy fact Blank shared during the tour. He had interesting comments on all of the animals, including how Curtis the anemone uses its poisonous barbed tentacles to stun prey before eating it like an octopus would.

Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd lay temperature-dependent sex determinate eggs, meaning the temperature of the egg determines the sex of the baby lizards when they hatch.

Although Blank knows quite a bit about the animals in Cunningham Hall, students are the real experts in charge of animal care.

The biology club at Kent State has been around for over 20 years, providing any interested students with the opportunity to reclaim campus habitats, like the prairie grass reserve surrounding the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, study wild birds up close, survey fish in the Cuyahoga or work with the animals housed on campus.

Most of the animals kept in the greenhouse and in room 29 are reptiles because reptiles are easier to keep than most other animals, Blank said.

Reptiles are very clean and can skip a meal or two, or sometimes closer to 50, without a problem.

The menagerie at Kent State is made mostly of pets that were donated to the biology department after their owners realized that a puppy might be better with the kids than a python.

Blank gave an example of how reptiles end up in Cunningham. “You buy a little boa constrictor that’s 10 inches long, and four year later is four feet long,” he said. “What are you gonna do with it?”

Besides rescuing cast-off pets, the biology department buys more exotic species from trade shows in and around Ohio.

Once the animals are on campus, they are used to teach students in classes like “Life on Planet Earth,” to recruit potential zoology or biology majors to come to Kent State and to get students comfortable with care and handling of live animals.

Senior zoology major Matt Eggert is co-chair of the Animal Committee, a subsection of the Zoology-Conservation Club (Zoo-Con).

As co-chair with sophomore biology major Jessica Just, Eggert oversees the care and handling of the animals, including feeding and cleaning them, making sure they stay healthy and training others to help care for the animals.

One of his trainees is another senior zoology major Tenley Davis.

Both Eggert, who joined the club in Fall 2008, and Davis, who joined last fall, have experience working at zoos, which helps them know what they are doing when handling the animals at Kent State.

Eggert has worked at the Toledo Zoo for about seven years and as a keeper at the Cleveland Zoo where he hopes to work full-time after he graduates.

Davis spent this past summer working at the Columbus Zoo. While there, she says she learned to love reptiles, a passion which definitely helps in regard to the Animal Committee.

Eggert and Davis share a lifelong love for animals of all kinds, which led them both to major in zoology.

“I was playing with little plastics animals when I was one year old,” Eggert said. He laughed when asked to explain when he knew he wanted to work with animals. “The first time I ever went to the zoo was when I was 10 days old.”

Davis shared a similar experience, describing how she would bring neighborhood animals into the house as a child.

So caring for the animals in Cunningham is a dream come true for Eggert, Davis and the other student volunteers who donate their time to Kent State’s scaly friends.

There are 68 students from a wide variety of majors on the Animal Committee, Eggert said, but only about half of them are active.

The most active members are usually Day Leaders like Davis who work with the animals one day a week.

For Eggert, managing all of those volunteers and scheduling when they can work is the only real downside to his job. Other than that, he said the animals are not incredibly difficult to care for. The hardest thing in dealing with the animals is when they get sick, hurt or when they die.

“You grow an attachment to the animals you work with,” Davis said. “So it’s hard to see them go or be ill. It’s like a family member or best friend.”

Of all the animal “friends” Committee members have at Kent State, both Eggert and Davis like the snakes the best.

Although they agree that, as with people, it’s not fair to choose favorites. As self-proclaimed animal people, the Committee members like to take the time to understand animals and find what makes each species interesting and special.

Committee members rotate schedules so that the animals are checked, fed, cleaned and cared for every day, even in the summer. If an animal has a medical concern, students bring it to the attention of Adam Leff, who advises the Committee, but other than that, students are mainly on their own in caring for the animals.

Unfortunately, despite the best care, sometimes animals get too sick to be cured. Last year a blue-tongued skink lizard died of mouth rot, and students got to view the necropsy to determine cause of death.

Care of the animals is laid out according to state and federal laws for housing animals, which are covered in the Animal Committee Handbook. The book is required reading for all Committee members and explains the rules of the club.

Eggert and Davis agree that Animal Committee is great for anyone interested in gaining experience in working with animals, something you need if you plan to go into any career that involves animals, or just for animal lovers in general.

“Animals don’t (just) exist in books,” Eggert explained. “Animals are living things that you see out in the environment. Really, that’s my favorite part. It’s just interacting with these animals on a daily basis.”

Visitors need special permission to see the animals, but it’s nice to know that Kent State embraces its wild side in a way one might not expect.

Contact Amy Cooknick at [email protected].