Ssserious lessons

Reptile expert April (standing, center) holds Marco the  corn snake while talking with children at the Sand Creek Library. April and fellow reptile educator Bethany (seated, center left) work for the Maymont Estate in Richmond, Virginia. They communicated with Southeast children  (seated, front) Wednesday, July 3, via a Portal. [Express photo/Lily Reavis]

Southeast children go face-to-screen with serpentine ambassadors

By Lily Reavis
Special to the Express

Inside a gold shipping container labeled “Portal” behind the Sand Creek Library in Southeast Colorado Springs, six children and a woman holding a corn snake casually discuss how reptiles shed their skin. The catch is that, while the kids are all in Colorado, the woman (and the snake) are across the country in their own gold shipping container, communicating live from Richmond, Virginia. 

These Portals are a global public art initiative that was created by Shared_Studios. While most of the Portals are identical to the one in Colorado Springs — gold on the outside and furnished with a dark, carpeted interior — others take the form of buses, screens or large, bounce-house-esque inflatables that move between locations.

 “Our portals range from Australia to Kazakhstan and down to Mexico City,” said Mary O’Meallie, the curator for Colorado Springs’ portal.

From its location behind the Sand Creek Library, the portal hosts several inter-continental discussions per day. On Wednesday, July 3, educators from the Maymont Estate in Richmond were scheduled for a 2-hour slot before a Zumba class with Stamford, Connecticut.

Reptile experts April and Bethany, who, in typical Portal form, did not provide their last names, brought two snakes, several field guides, a full snakeskin and a complete snake skeleton to their own Portal to educate the Colorado Springs kids.

Wearing a pair of green sunglasses with paper snake eyes taped onto the lenses, April explained that all venomous snakes, at least in Virginia, have elliptical pupils, whereas those of non-venomous snakes’ pupils are circular.

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The first reptile ambassador that April introduced was named Marco, a 20-something-year-old corn snake. April explained that Marco only eats once per week — one mouse every Monday — due to his slow metabolism and fully grown body.

“That would be like us eating a small watermelon,” Bethany said.

Before putting Marco back in his translucent bin, April performed a temperature experiment to show the kids that snakes are ectothermic  — “a fancy word for ‘cold-blooded,’ ” according to Bethany.

With an infrared thermometer gun, April took the temperature of the wall of the Richmond portal, which read 83 degrees. Then, she measured the temperature of her leg: 94 degrees. Finally, she aimed the laser pointer at the snake, which came in at 85 degrees.

“Marco is the temperature of the room around him,” April said. “If I put him back in the air-conditioned snake room, he’d go back to 75 [degrees].”

She added that being cold-blooded helps snakes burrow, as they adjust to the temperature of the earth around them.

Before introducing the next snake, April asked the kids whether they like the critters, which was met with a wave of child-sized thumbs-down.

The kids gave reasons like, “I’m scared they’ll bite me,” and “My mom says they’re dangerous.” April encouraged the kids to leave all snakes unbothered and in nature.

“The main thing is we’re gonna leave wildlife free and appreciate that [snakes] eat lots and lots of mice,” she said through laughter.

The next snake featured was a younger eastern kingsnake named Rex. Instead of unrolling and slithering around April’s arms, Rex remained coiled tightly in a ball in her hand for the duration of his time.

“This is his choice, he wants to be in this knot,” Bethany explained. “Just like dogs, snakes have personalities.”

She said that snakes are generally more comfortable when they are wrapped around things, such as branches. According to Bethany, Rex is simply more shy than Marco.

 From its location behind the Sand Creek Library, the portal hosts several inter-continental discussions per day. 

There vs. here

Reptile expert April (standing, center) introduces Southeast children to Rex, an eastern kingsnake during a Portal session with the Sand Creek Library on Wednesday, July 3. [Express photo/Lily Reavis]

While holding Rex, April pulled out a heavily-bookmarked field guide about snakes in North America, flipping directly to a section on Colorado reptiles.

 “Do you like forests or open fields?” she asked the kids, preparing to tell them about which critters prefer which climate.

Luckily, April explained that there are far less snakes in Colorado Springs than there are in the plains, as they become less likely with higher altitudes. Even so, Colorado is home to two types of rattlesnakes, a viper and a Texas bull snake, along with several common, non-venomous snakes, such as the garter snake.

 “In the lower parts [of Colorado], you might run into the northern water snake, which can swim!” April said excitedly. “We have that one in Virginia, too, which is pretty cool.”

The kids did not share her enthusiasm, immediately enquiring as to where the northern water snake lives and whether it would bite them while swimming. (Not to worry, this particular reptile is non-venomous.)

Bethany said: “Most of the time, snakes don’t want to bite people. Usually they’re actually just trying to get away from a threat.”

April added on that, unlike humans, snakes don’t have arms or legs to keep predators away; they have to bite to let other animals know that they want to be left alone.

An 11-year-old girl named Alex asked whether snakes make good pets.

“A snake isn’t really that exciting at the end of the day,” April said. “They don’t do much, they aren’t cuddly.

“I really don’t think that pet trade is a good thing at all,” she added.

She explained that, often times, snakes are adopted because people think they’re interesting without looking into the work they require.

 “Some snakes live really long, like into their mid-20s,” she said. “It’s really hard to rehome an older snake.”

April and Bethany both urged their audience to consider adopting or rescuing a snake, as opposed to buying one from a pet store.

“I’m gonna ask my mom if we can get a snake!” Alex said, excitedly, before running out of the portal.

April and Bethany spent the remaining half hour of their time in the portal answering questions from the audience. They explained how the reptiles’ vision works with geothermal imaging, attempted to count the ribs on a serpentine skeleton and detailed the hunting patterns of poisonous vs. venomous snakes.

“There’s so many things we can learn from nature,” April said. “So go check out some books on nature, y’all.”


Check it out

The Colorado Springs Portal is slated to be at the Sand Creek Library, 1821 S. Academy Blvd., through July 10.
Upcoming scheduled conversations include:
*  Nirobi, Kenya, 8:30 a.m. Friday, July 5
* Lagos, Nigeria, 10:15 a.m., Saturday, July 6
* Stamford Independence Day celebration with Stamford, Connecticut: 5:30 p.m., Saturday, July 6
* Poetry jam with Gaza City: 7:30 a.m., Sunday, July 7
Schedule is subject to change. See for more details.

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