Field Guide: The Drawing Zoo brings exotic animals to the classroom

Brittany Roger walks into a third grade classroom at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School with a huge, heavy-duty, laundry-bag-like sack. The kids all want to know what's in that bag, but all she'll tell them as they file into the room is that it holds a few animals, and that instead of their regular math class, they're going to draw animals with the Drawing Zoo. The students are agog—"Is it a baby tiger? A baby elephant? A kangaroo?"

Over the next hour, Roger takes out the animals one by one—Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Bowser the tortoise, Pogo the bearded dragon, and Coby the corn snake—and walks them around the room so the students can get an up-close look and touch the animals. Their lesson today is on shape, so they work from the general to the specific to draw them: Pogo's body is a long rectangle, his head is a pentagon, and his tail is a stretched-out triangle.

"How does he feel?" Roger asks the class as the students' fingers graze the tiny spikes that cover Pogo's back. "How are you going to draw that feeling?"

And even though Roger has reassured them at least a few times that the animals she brought aren't going to hurt them, when she pulls out Coby, a small, gentle, 18-year-old red-orange corn snake, all of the kids scream, scoot back, and pull their feet up onto their chairs.

But then they all want to touch him.

"I can count the number of times on my hand that someone has genuinely been afraid," Roger, who started the Drawing Zoo in 2013, tells me a couple of days later at her home in Reisterstown. "It's rarer than you'd expect because most of the time that people act afraid, they're copying someone else."

We're sitting in a warm, carpeted room in Roger's house that is stacked with tanks and cages holding three geckos, two chameleons, 15 snakes, a tortoise, three turtles, several bugs, a blind uromastyx, and an escape artist iguana named Escher who at various points throughout our interview climbs out of her cage, taunts the bearded dragon, poops on the floor, and briefly naps on top of the warm light above the uromastyx's cage.

"She is quite a turd, I don't know if she'll ever be a Drawing Zoo animal," Roger says of the iguana. To make the cut, the animals have to be able to tolerate traveling, many people touching them, new smells, and loud noises. "And even though I always tell the kids they can't touch the animals' faces, I always have to bring an animal that will tolerate a child touching their face," she says.

About 16 of her 32 pets meet that criteria, and a few of the other animals she brings to class belong to friends, including the biggest guy: Steve, a six-foot-long boa constrictor who belongs to Roger's friend and Drawing Zoo collaborator Kerri Litz (full disclosure, Kerri also used to be my manager at the MICA Store).

Teachers and administrators can book Drawing Zoo visits through the nonprofit Arts Every Day, which also helps Baltimore City Public Schools pay for the service; for county schools, Roger coordinates with Young Audiences of Maryland to schedule visits. The three types of classes she teaches through the Drawing Zoo are adaptable for different grade levels and different teachers' needs, and they meet Next Generation Science Standards requirements. With the Drawing Zoo, students can learn about heredity, and why animals' bodies are shaped and textured a certain way to adapt to their environments, while also learning how to draw the animals.

The Drawing Zoo's visits to college classes (mostly art classes at Towson University, MICA, and community colleges) tend to focus more on the drawings, but "understanding the animal's biology can yield better decision making," Roger says. "Some people, without realizing it, they'll draw Pogo or the iguana with a curling tail, but they don't have a curling tail. Or they'll draw too few toes or too many toes, where they've made an assumption, and [I'm] getting them to understand this isn't a tree-dwelling animal, he's a desert animal, he doesn't need a curling tail because he doesn't climb."

Roger also teaches an empathy class with kids, where they observe an animal's body language and try to figure out what it means and why the animal is reacting that way. Learning to be empathetic to animals, she hopes, can improve the kids' capacity to feel empathy for people, too.

"How many times have you argued with somebody and you're only thinking about how to prove them wrong, or you're only thinking about what you're going to say while they're still talking?" she says. "And I realize it might feel good at the time but it's not the most productive way [to communicate]; it's certainly not empathetic. Whereas with animals you can't argue with them. You can't manipulate them into seeing things your way."

Though Roger has always been a self-described "crazy nature girl," it wasn't until she visited the Natural History Museum in D.C. as a sophomore at MICA that she started to envision a future that incorporated science and art together. But her interest in rescuing exotic animals goes back much further.

When she was five years old, she saw a black rat snake in her backyard, picked it up, and wrapped it around herself like a scarf. "Me and the snake were just existing," she says. "I completely lack the part of the brain that tells you new things are scary. I guess my parents never taught me snakes were dangerous or never taught me snakes were bad or any of those old wives tales, and it didn't occur to me that it could hurt me, and I just picked it up and ran home with it, and I was like 'mommy, daddy, this is my new best friend, I need to keep it.'" (Her parents made her put that snake back, but they got her another one for her seventh birthday.)

She took in many of her animals while volunteering for the (now closed) Charm City Reptile Rescue when she was a college student. She learned how to take care of iguanas, big snakes, turtles, tarantulas, tortoises, and more over the two years she worked there, which gave her some of the skills and knowledge necessary to house and care for the variety of animals she now has. While a cat or a dog's needs can be pretty easy for a person to figure out, most of these more exotic animals have needs that are less intuitive, and require far more extensive research.

For the past several years, Roger says, whenever someone needed to get rid of an animal for any reason, they'd call her up. But for now, she says she's at her limit as far as resources, time, and money go—though it's hard for her to say no.

"You need to be able to commit when things are bad, not just when things are exciting," she says. "So what I try to tell everybody that gets excited about [having pets] is that when I have a fever and I have a 15-hour work day, I still have to get up and feed and clean all these guys. It's not their fault that they need me—they don't have thumbs, they're not in their natural habitats, and because it's rescue I spend a lot of money on vet bills."

People sometimes suggest that she could give some of her animals up to a trusted friend or fellow animal rescuer, but she can't part with any of them. "I'm like 'Nope! No, I'm committed, this is my life,'" she says. "I'm at my limit, but it's okay to have limits."

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