When George Mathews first met Moe, now one of the Virginia Living Museum’s otters, Moe only swam in a baby pool and rode around in a wagon. Rescued as a pup after his mother was killed by a boat propeller, Moe spent some time with a Virginia family, but as he grew up it was clear that this wild animal was not a pet.
And that’s when the Virginia Living Museum got involved.
“The animal imprinted on me and one of the other staff members here so we had to become its new parents,” said Mathews, curatorial director and 35-year Museum veteran. When Mathews brought the otter to join the Museum, Moe had to learn how to adapt to surroundings better suited for a wild animal.
“Since it had never been in anything bigger than a kiddie pool and a bathtub it didn’t know how to really swim that well,” explained Mathews, who had the unique experience of teaching the otter how to dive and swim in the otter exhibit. “The first day the otter went on exhibit I actually had to get in the water and splash around with it a little bit. It adapted very quickly and now it’s doing fine.”
Journey to the Museum
Animals come to the Museum from all backgrounds and make lasting memories with staff, volunteers and visitors. Just like the otter Moe, many of the animals come to the Museum for a safe home and to help educate the Museum’s 200,000 yearly visitors.
It’s certainly true that every animal has a story, and two of the Museum’s great animal storytellers are George Mathews and John Kleopfer, who served a curator of aquariums and herpetology from 1993 to 2000. Together, these men have decades of animal stories to share.
“As Curatorial Director I’m supervising the day-to-day operations of the curatorial department, which includes 240 or so species and about 1300 animals,” said Mathews.
Each animal’s journey to the Museum is unique, and they arrive with some exceptional back stories. Like Moe the otter, some animals join the Museum after being improperly kept as pets. Others come looking for a safe home after being injured in the wild or after their natural habitats are disturbed.
When Kleopfer joined the aquarium and herpetology department in the 1990s, he took care of a wide variety of reptiles and fish from throughout the state. “We had the usual cast of characters: king snake, black snake, hognose, box turtles, snapping turtles, lizards, tree frogs, toads,” said Kleopfer.
While some reptiles were collected by the herpetology team, others were brought in by members of the community.
“I remember one time a guy brought in a baby rattlesnake from the Bethel Woods area,” said Kleopfer, “and that was back when the Bethel Woods area had a fairly significant rattlesnake population. The kid brought it in in a bucket. But obviously that population has been wiped out.”
Construction and development can disturb animals’ homes, like the rattlesnake from Bethel Woods. When animals lose their habitats or get injured, their chances of survival in the wild are slim.
“We’d never take a healthy animal from the wild, it’s always an animal that has some special story or special needs that can’t survive on its own,” explained Mathews. “There are birds that have lost an eye or a wing so they can’t be released to the wild but can be a great ambassador for the species.”
One prime ambassador is also one of Mathew’s favorite animals at the Museum. Chesapeake Chuck, the local celebrity woodchuck, is famous in Hampton Roads for his annual Groundhog Day event.
“Chesapeake Chuck came from a lady up in the western part of the state who was a licensed rehabber who works with woodchucks,” he said. After treating the woodchuck for an ear infection, the rehabber realized that Chesapeake Chuck had become too used to people to survive in the wild.
“She donated him to the Living Museum,” said Mathews, “and now Chesapeake Chuck comes out for Groundhog Day and other special events. We bring him out as a program animal and I can hold him and scratch his head and hand-feed him. He does great around people so he’s a great educational animal.”
Mathews now has a special relationship with this friendly woodchuck. “I took over the parenting of the animal when he came in,” he said. “Chesapeake Chuck is really food motivated so if you bring him out and feed him pecans and carrots or broccoli he’ll sit there and eat the food and you can actually scratch his head—he’s the only animal we have that you can touch while you feed him.”
Home to the Endangered
Some of the most fascinating animals at the Museum are rarely seen in the wild. The Museum works with several organizations and agencies to support endangered animals.
One such animal is the loggerhead sea turtle. Listed on the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, these animals face exploitation for the oil, meat, shells and eggs and can be entangled in nets.
As part of a cooperative program with the North Carolina Aquariums to help boost the loggerhead population, the Museum raises a loggerhead for several years and then releases it with a radio transmitter to track the turtle’s movement in the Atlantic Ocean.
In October 2015, the curatorial staff released the sea turtle Abe who had been at the Museum for four years. Using the tracking device, scientists and the public can see where Abe and the other released sea turtles swim.
During Kleopfer’s time at the Museum he supported the release of the sea turtles by traveling with the turtles from Virginia to Florida. “We used to drive the turtle down to Florida, release it and pick up another young turtle there,” he explained. “We used to do this every two to three years. The growth rates on sea turtles in captivity is phenomenal, they literally grow like grass.”
When working with sea turtles or any animals on the Endangered Species List, the Museum must take some extra lengths to provide a safe environment.
“We need special permits to keep endangered animals like the Roanoke logperch and the short-nosed sturgeon and the red wolves,” explained Mathews. “Whether it’s as small as a three-inch fish or a 60-, 70-pound wolf, you need to meet all the standards and requirements to display these endangered animals.”
The Museum participates in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program by providing habitat and care for three red wolves, a father and two sons.
“Red wolves are actually an endangered species and ours are owned by the federal government,” said Mathews, “so we aren’t really allowed to have any direct contact with them, we can’t hand feed them.” These wolves could be released back into the wild to grow the population so they need to remain wild even in captivity.
For Kleopfer and Mathews, working with threatened and endangered animals definitely has its rewards.
“When I started first working here back in the ‘80s the bald eagle was a protected and endangered animal and the numbers were way down,” said Mathews. “Being here 30 years or so, it’s been gratifying to see how an animal’s status in the wild has changed. Now the bald eagle has gone from endangered to threatened and while it’s still protected, the animals are making a great comeback.”
In every area of the Museum you encounter some animals with interesting, and funny, stories.
Mathews remembers one incident with one of the Museum’s turkeys.
“Ten years ago right before Thanksgiving one of our turkeys disappeared,” said Mathews. The Museum kept getting calls from people in Newport News who saw or even tried to catch the turkey, but to no avail. “Then on April Fools Day the following spring we get a call from one of our board members and she says it’s in her house! She was doing her traditional spring cleaning so she had opened all the windows and doors and the turkey walked in.”
The turkey returned to the Museum safe and sound. “It’s amazing that that turkey was smart enough to survive in midtown Newport News for all those weeks,” Mathews said.
Another holiday animal encounter occurred during the Christmas season when Kleopfer was with the Museum. A woman brought in a salamander in a Styrofoam cup and said it had fallen out of her Christmas tree.
“She set the tree up and all of a sudden this thing fell out and she first thought it was a piece of poop because it’s just a brown, plain salamander,” said Kleopfer. “But then she looked at it and saw that it was a salamander.”
Kleopfer could tell the salamander wasn’t native to Virginia so he spoke with the hardware store where the woman had bought the tree. Turns out, the salamander had traveled with the tree from Oregon where the Douglas fir tree was grown. “That’s when I was able to look in a field guide and identify where the animal came from and saw that it was a northwestern salamander,” said Kleopfer. “We ended up shipping it to the Oregon Zoo to put it on display. It ended up flying back and was kept in a container that the captain of the plane kept in the cockpit with him.” That Christmas salamander flew home for the holidays in style.
Typically when an animal comes to live at the Museum it will be trained as a program animal or placed on exhibit. One skunk used to be a party animal at a popular college town.
“We have a skunk right now that was roaming the streets of Charlottesville and I think some of the UVA kids were feeding it,” said Mathews. The interactions with people made the skunk friendly, too friendly to survive in the wild. “We realized it couldn’t make it on its own, it was looking for handouts from people. It’s one thing to be friendly, it’s another thing to be able to hold it and walk around with it and use it in an educational program.”
Whether on exhibit or in an education program, all the animals at the Virginia Living Museum have a special story to tell. They come from displaced habitats, people’s homes, and apparently even from a Douglas fir tree farm in Oregon. But no matter what their story is, they all help educate visitors about the importance of conservation.
“The Museum is a unique facility because by providing homes for these animals as ambassadors it’s a great opportunity to educate people about native wildlife, natural habitats and conservation all mixed into one,” said Mathews.
“They have a great message focusing on the local native wildlife and educating kids,” Kleopfer said about the Museum. “They have a great mission.”