William Conway's "How to Exhibit a Bullfrog" has always been my guiding light for if I ever got to design a major zoo exhibit. The thought of educating visitors holistically about a species really appealed to me - I thought of versions of it for prairie dogs, alligators, Asian elephants, and jaguars, among other species. The closest I've seen so far is the Gomek Forever museum at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a facility designed around this concept, and I rushed to pay a visit. The results were... so-so.
It's very easy to miss the grandiosely named American International Rattlesnake Museum. Tucked away between the small stores and tourist spots of Albuquerque's Old Town, there is little to outwardly indicate what lies inside. Through the front door and past the gift shop (where you will be issued a Certificate of Bravery... I kid you not. I'm seriously thinking of having mine framed and hung over my desk) is one of the most impressive collections of rattlesnakes ever assembled under one roof.
It was ironically the gift shop which gave me the most positive vibe about the place. A sign hung prominently stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I forgot to take a picture) "The zoo doesn't sell rhino horns, the aquarium doesn't sell shark fins, we don't sell rattles." Not that the three are necessarily equal, seeing as rattles often fall of naturally, which seldom happens to shark fins, but I liked the message it sent. Then I went inside.
The museum is a series of small rooms, lined with terrariums of not only rattlesnakes, but a hodgepodge of other reptiles and amphibians. Rattlesnakes, to be sure, are species which ask little of their caretakers in captivity, and the majority of the displays are simply glass-fronted wooden boxes, floored with sand or wood chips and decorated with a few plants and rocks. Some looked a little small for the size of the occupants (rattlesnakes seldom move much, which I think can make it easy for a caretaker to misjudge how large an enclosure should be), but none were what I would call unacceptable... it's just that I remembered some of the much bigger, more beautiful displays I'd seen at other facilities (I'm thinking, for example, of the western diamondback exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo's Desert Dome), and finding myself wishing that the museum had opted for fewer, larger, better displays. Heck, they probably couldn't have done larger, mixed-species exhibits if they wanted to preserve the diversity of the collection.
Apart from the snakes, the museum component consisted largely of shelves of stuff. Some of it was kind of kitschy (obvious touristy knickknacks), some was kind of cool (like the display case of snake oils that peddlers used to sell in the Old West). There were some bones and skulls, some graphics, and televisions playing David Attenborough's Life in Cold Blood. The most interesting educational feature I saw was a low table of sand, with large river stones in it. Each stone had a trivia question about rattlesnakes painted on one side, the answer of the other. It was a fun, simple interactive device... though on second thought, a room full of a) semi-supervised children, b) glass-fronted rattlesnake habitats, and c) fist-sized rocks might not have been the ideal combination.
I'm glad I went to the Rattlesnake Museum - it was certainly worth a look - but it failed to meet my hope of finding Conway's vision realized somewhere. Which was frustrating, because I think much of it could have been done with some better organization and messaging. There was lots of stuff and a lot of animals, but together they didn't tell much of a story. There were missed opportunities - the New World sidewinder rattlesnake was displayed next to the Old World sidewinder viper, which could have been a better-told story of convergent evolution. Gila monsters were on display, as well as scorpions and tarantulas - these could have all been grouped together to better tell the story of venom. I think it would have been really cool to have some specimens of the rattlesnake's natural prey - kangaroo mice or rabbits, for instance - on hand, but I can understand why the museum wouldn't - you bring in mammals, you open yourself up to annual USDA inspections, which they might not have wanted to get involved with.
One notable omission that concerned me - I don't think I saw a single mention anywhere about rattlesnake roundups, one of the greatest welfare and conservation issues associated with rattlesnakes in this country. This is especially important in the western United States, where visitors to the museum could potentially be from states where roundups still occur, and where their voices could be put to use in changing these practices.
So in conclusion, the American International Rattlesnake Museum was a cool visit... but not the rattlesnake version of Conway's bullfrog. I suppose I'll have to keep looking for that.