by André Y. Laurin
Live animal demonstrations are a hoot, especially when your furry colleague is unpredictable and things go wild. My sidekicks on this particular demonstration were Sabrina and Dale, two "seasoned" Northern flying squirrels that had been hand-raised by staff in the Biosphere at Science North, where a series of habitat enclosures showcased the fauna of Northern Ontario. These animal ambassadors demonstrated their gliding skills during live demonstrations by jumping off of a science demonstrator’s hand, gliding down a few meters and landing on another demonstrator who was wearing a lab coat, only to disappear into one of coat’s pockets. Science demonstrators were, and still are, referred to as “Bluecoats” after their distinctive blue lab coats, the pockets of which were like second homes for the squirrels.
My assistant was a new student volunteer who had observed, but never participated in this demonstration. The crowd was a typical gathering of about 100 visitors composed mainly of families with children of various ages. The time arrived in the demonstration when the squirrels would do their thing.
Typically, I would get Dale to show-off first, because he was unpredictable in his willingness to jump. I often got a few chuckles from the crowd by insisting that Dale had a fear of flying. However, on this particular day, I decided to get Sabrina out of my pocket first. Standing on top of a five-foot tall fake boulder, I reached into one of my trusty lab coat pockets, pulled out Sabrina and laid her onto my outstretched hand. As expected, Sabrina dutifully located the other Bluecoat in the crowd, bobbed her head up-and-down a few times and jumped. She landed on my assistant’s chest and scurried right into one of the lab coat pockets to the great amusement of the crowd. This was repeated a second time in case anyone missed it.
Now came the climax of the show; someone from the crowd would be chosen to wear the blue lab coat and become a flying squirrel landing strip! As a sort of “welcome-to-the-team” initiation, I put the spotlight on my assistant to choose one lucky visitor. After some hesitation (likely due to shock), my assistant chose a mother from the crowd. The woman reluctantly agreed to participate after some encouragement from her family and put on the lab coat.
After a warm welcome and introduction, I gave her few standard instructions: tie your hair back, stand right in that spot, and don’t close your eyes. I took Sabrina out of my pocket knowing that Dale might not jump. I placed the squirrel on my hand and it sat there only for an instant before jumping as though its tail was set ablaze.
Our brave volunteer let out a shrill scream of panic. Sabrina had landed on the woman’s chest, and rather than scurry down into the lab coat’s pocket as was expected, she made a beeline straight into the lady’s bosom. My rookie assistant and I had failed to ask the volunteer, who was quite busty and wearing a V-neck shirt, to fully button-up the lab coat.
The crowd burst into hysterical laughter at the sight of this poor lady jumping up and down and screaming at the top of her lungs, “It’s in my shirt! It’s in my shirt!” I jumped down from my perch and attempted to calm her. When this proved useless, I asked my female assistant to take the volunteer to a private area and help with extracting the squirrel.
Needless to say, the extraction is fodder for another good story. Sabrina was finally removed from the volunteer, who by then had suffered scratches over various parts of her torso. There was a fanfare of applause and cheer from the crowd as she returned to her family, fully embarrassed.
It was only when Sabrina was returned to me that I realized it was Dale all along! I profusely apologized for Dale’s behaviour and then hastily wrapped-up the demonstration.
To this day, I can’t help but wonder why I changed my routine, or why I asked a rookie assistant to pick a volunteer without prior discussion. Most of all, I will never forget how merciful that poor lady was after having put her through such agony, nor how it felt to be stuck between a rock and a hard place!André's Tips:
When faced with unpredictable animal sidekicks:
André Laurin discovered his passion for interpretation 20 years ago during a cooperative education placement at a science centre when he was in high school. Having worked at an urban outreach centre, a national historic site, and in a number of roles for Parks Canada, he has accumulated a variety of interpretive disasters for his toolkit. Andre is one of the editors of the Interpreters's Big Book of Disasters , a former Interpretation Canada board member, and a self-proclaimed naturalist-in-perpetual-training. He is currently a Resource Management Officer at Prince Edward Island National Park.
- Know the individual animals and their tendencies well
- Think through possible situations and have contingency plans in place
- Stick to your plan and play it cool when the unexpected happens
- Always keep your shirt buttoned up!