BEMIDJI -- When the staff at Headwaters Science Center acquired a red-tailed boa from a zoo down in the Twin Cities nearly six months ago, they knew they needed a name befitting their largest reptile on display.
Even at over 8-feet long, the female boa constrictor had big shoes to fill after the retirement of Bo, the center’s long-standing snake who had grown too old and arthritic and was sent to live out the remainder of his days in the care of a staff member.
“He lived here for many, many years. We had parents who were like, ‘I held him when I was a kid,’’' said Angie Morales, the director of visitor experience at Headwaters Science Center. “So when he left, because he was such a popular snake, we knew it was going to be a big animal to replace.”
In fact, a lot of the center’s critters had been aging out and they had a batch of new animals that needed names.
So when it came time for naming, Headwaters staff took to social media to let the town decide.
“We started with some of the smaller animals to get a gauge on how it would work, just in case we had a Boaty McBoatface situation,” Morales said. “We left the biggest animal for last and had it narrowed down to four names. In the end, Artemis was the crowd favorite.”
With nearly 30 exotic animal exhibits -- ranging from a bearded dragon to captive raptors to an insect colony of walking sticks -- Headwaters provides guests the opportunity to interact and learn about some of nature’s more unusual creatures right in the heart of downtown Bemidji.
“Who doesn't love cute and cuddly animals? Now, I say cute and cuddly because that’s my opinion,” Morales said. “But I think it’s kind of cool to get people to see something unique, like a bearded dragon, because there’s already plenty of puppies and kitties out there.”
All of the center’s animals are donated, the majority being former family pets that got too big, or those whose owner couldn’t take care of them anymore.
Once an animal arrives at the center, it spends a week in quarantine. Staff members then gradually expose it to the noise and activity of guests without allowing them to see or touch the animal.
It takes a little over a month for the creature to make its way onto the floor and be placed in its new home; it’s then another month for staff to bring it out and hold it.
Staff handle the animal for an additional month before they feel comfortable with allowing guests to hold it.
While Morales typically doesn’t encourage people to call Headwaters with an offer to donate their unwanted critters, she said that if the right type of animal does come along, they give it a trial period.
“For the most part, we don’t accept animals because we’re not a rescue,” Morales said. “It takes a very specific animal to be successful and happy here. It’s a lot of in and out. It can be a very high stress situation, so it really takes a special animal to be here.”
A team effort
Each morning, the Headwaters staff and its volunteers make their rounds, cleaning and caring for their scaly, feathery and furry residents.
“It’s a big team effort, and it’s a lot of learning on the job. We teach each other a lot of stuff,” Morales said. “I would say that without volunteers I don’t know that this place would survive. We really depend on our amazing, fabulous, dedicated volunteers.”
Completely volunteer-driven and donation-based, the center’s saltwater reef tank is the largest public saltwater aquarium in the area and the most labor intensive exhibit they have.
However, Morales said it’s important for staff to be in-tune with all of the animals in order to detect any signs of illness or stress; and as a result, they’ve come to discover that each critter has a distinct personality.
Angel, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot, is the center’s honorary greeter and in-house “diva,” while Pogona, a bearded dragon, is beloved by children for his “big personality.” Orion the rabbit is another favorite because of his “chill, laidback” demeanor.
But not all of Headwaters’ animals are necessarily exotic.
A couple years ago, the center started a science club for older middle school children that was focused on the study of water quality. The kids used seine netting to catch juvenile perch and bass out of Lake Bemidji, which they brought back to Headwaters.
“It’s a cool way for kids to see what’s right in their backyard even though, a lot of times, we don’t take time to see what’s right under our feet,” Morales said.
But upon visiting Headwaters, guests often find the snakes steal the show -- their slithering bodies and flicking tongues inciting in people a range of emotions, from fear to intrigue to disgust to excitement.
“I really think we can get into some really big, deep philosophical conversations just talking about snakes,” Morales said. “Even if you think snakes are scary and gross, I promise I can get you to touch one and nothing bad will happen. It’s easy to be scared of something you’ve never seen before, but it’s a little easier to have understanding, or maybe, even compassion for it.”