By Alfredo Martinez
To the casual passerby, Eco Vivarium appears as just one among many proprietors on Juniper Street. Beneath their reptilian-esque camouflage, one finds a museum that offers a unique learning experience. “Inspire – Educate – Empower” is their motto as they work with the local community to boost awareness and appreciation for a holistic ecological vision.
Susan Nowicke founded Eco Vivarium as a non-profit organization in 2009 and serves as their acting director. “We’re not just about conservation,” she comments. “We’re about taking a logical look at the ecosystem.” For Susan and Eco Vivarium, it is not so much about saving this or that species from the brink of extinction. Rather, it is about educating people about the entire ecosystem of which they are a part and teaching “how to work alongside nature”. She says, “It’s not about taking it to the extreme, how people say ‘man is dangerous’. No… after all, man is supposed to rule over nature.”
Eco Vivarium deals exclusively with reptiles, amphibians, and arthropods. Between the Museum and the Education Center, which is located next door, they house 97 different species of animals. Kennedy, the lone employee at the museum, says, “all but two of them come from the pet industry.” Susan continues, “People just see the animal in the display case at the pet store and think, ‘Oh what a cool pet.’ They have no idea what kind of care the animal needs or even how big it’s going to get.” What ends up happening is that pet owners end up dumping the animals with local animal control agencies or worse- they simply throw them out. Susan laments, “Most of the animals we have are throwaways.” Kennedy quickly adds, “Literally, some were found in the dumpster.”
In response to this problem, one of the services they provide is to be a liaison between potential pet owners and the various agencies. They house a large number of animals for these agencies and encourage the potential owner to volunteer and spend time with the animal before taking it home. Susan explains, “We show them how to care for the animals, how to test them for parasites, how to feed them- give them a sense of what it takes.” One does not have to be in the market for a new pet to take part in this experience. The Museum and the Education Center are open to the public and all are welcome. As Susan says, “The museum belongs to the community.”
Community is important for the staff at Eco Vivarium. The most time and energy is spent on community outreach, second only to that which the care for the animals demands. This is where their tagline, “Inspire – Educate – Empower”, is most directly implemented. Through their mobile service they are able to provide on-site demonstrations and educational programs that serve a wide range of audiences, from private parties and classrooms to summer camps and local governmental departments. The goal is to teach people how to interact with this often-neglected part of the ecosystem and hopefully learn to appreciate its value.
Eco Vivarium serves the underserved members of the community, especially kids with special needs. As a mother of a child with special needs, Susan understands the struggle better than most. Most of the volunteers that they get are either persons with special needs or have a relative with special needs. Eco Vivarium provides an environment where the person is valued for their abilities and not faulted for their disabilities. “They feel important and valuable.” Kennedy suffered from a learning disability growing up and now she gets to “help kids and show them some of the tricks that helped [her].”
One of Eco Vivarium’s most prominent programs is working with the local library in creating a fun environment where kids can get enthusiastic about reading. Here the kids take turns reading to some live Bearded Dragons. As the child reads, the Dragon reacts. The more fluid the reader, the more reaction from the Dragon. Kennedy recalls with a smile, “They want to practice at home so that they can read better for the Dragons.” It has been their experience that kids in general learn better when they interact with the animals. “For some kids the textbook doesn’t do it, they need that connection,” says Susan.
Eco Vivarium has enjoyed support from local businesses and individual members of the community, but they are always on the lookout for additional help. This is where students can get involved and help make a difference. They need help with social media and marketing as well as painting murals, sculptures, and film for educational purposes. Students with a practical skills with carpentry, being a receptionist, or helping educate kids are also encouraged to volunteer. Every talent is welcome and the help appreciated.
Eco Vivarium hopes to continue their mission to inspire, educate, empower as they bring together the community and show its connection to and place in the ecosystem. As Susan summarizes, “It’s the little things that we can change that have the biggest impact.” Eco Vivarium Museum and Education Center is open Wednesday-Friday from 12-5pm, Saturday from 10am-5pm, and Sunday from 10am-3:30pm. For more information, including tour pricing, visit: www.ecovivarium.org.
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Sperling