Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Up-close encounters with fur and fins

Virginia Living Museum lets visitors get face to face with native species

  • By Leslie Middleton on December 01, 2014
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In the center of an enclosure filled with tall oaks, a bobcat strolls nonchalantly toward what looks like a large rock, wagging his characteristic shortened tail in full view of visitors 20 feet away on an elevated boardwalk. On this sunny late autumn day, the cat opts for a bed of leaves in dappled sunlight nearby.

“That ‘rock’ is actually made of concrete and has a heating element, which makes for a nice dozing spot in the winter,” said George Mathews, Jr., curatorial director at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, VA.

Mathews said visitors are likely to see — really see — more Virginia animals, amphibians and fish in a few hours here than they will see in a lifetime of outdoor adventures.

That’s because the museum is designed to maximize opportunities to view the more than 250 native species that live here.

The museum — which includes aquariums, live animals, a planetarium and observatory and numerous outdoor exhibits — has a mission to connect people to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation.

It does so through a combination of indoor and outdoor galleries and discovery centers that showcase animals, insects, reptiles and fish in carefully managed habitats that mimic their natural environments and protect the creature’s health and well-being.

“We walk a fine line between allowing the animal to be seen in its native habitat and providing a natural view,” Mathews said. Ultimately, the animals —– like the charismatic red wolf, one of the most endangered species in North America —– are ambassadors for their species.

And each one has a story. “Every animal that you see here,” Mathews said, “is here because it has been injured, orphaned or was born in captivity.”

The bobcat was raised as a house pet from when it was very young but grew “too big” for its home. In addition to being declawed by its former owner, once an animal like this is imprinted on humans, Mathews said, it can rarely survive in the wild.

A red fox explores a small waterfall that runs through his pen. “He came to us from the Wildlife Center of Virginia, but he couldn’t be released to the wild because he has allergies,” Mathews explained. A sneezing fox has little chance of survival — it can’t quietly hide from larger predators, nor is it likely to ever become an effective hunter.

“He’s a special animal who is here for a special reason,” Mathews said.

The museum’s 0.75-mile elevated boardwalk zigzags along Deer Park Lake, wetlands and through the woods. Along the way, visitors encounter the animals in their outdoor enclosures, each carefully constructed to provide shelter and opportunities for the animals to play and hunt.

The two beavers have a waterfall and plenty of woody debris for building. Otters have room to dive and swim; raccoons have muddy pools and banks for “pawing,” a natural food-seeking gesture.

The boardwalk allows visitors to walk through the 5,500-square-foot Coastal Plain Aviary, home to brown pelicans, egrets and herons, along with 13 other species that breed in or migrate through Virginia.

Mathews pointed to a great blue heron perched on a half-submerged log, preening its feathers. “If you look carefully, you can see that its upper and lower bills don’t close properly, which means it can’t capture the fish it needs to survive.” Someone had “rescued” the bird while still young, brought it home, and fed it bread scraps, which caused the bill to grow disfigured.

Over the last 25 years, the museum has become part of a national network of wildlife rehabilitation centers, zoos and aquariums — and has since 2003 been part of the federal Species Survival Plan for red wolves. In 2006, the museum’s first red wolf pup was born.

Including the red wolf, visitors can see 12 animals that are on the federal and state rare and threatened lists — including the barking tree frog, black-banded sunfish, Eastern chicken turtle, and the Roanoke logperch, a small darter native to the Roanoke watershed.

The main museum is spacious, with a central atrium overlooking the Appalachian Mountain Cove and the Cypress Swamp, two-level “habitarariums” filled with plants, animals and even birds of each habitat. Galleries showcase other Virginia habitats, including a coastal plain gallery that includes marsh species and a 30,000-gallon Chesapeake Bay aquarium.

“We are a ‘grow and release’ facility,” said Chris Crippen, aquarium curator and conservation coordinator. The museum grows fish for its own displays as well as other aquariums, carefully moving them to larger tanks to provide more room as they grow. “We raised these cobia from fingerlings,” he says, pointing to 12-inch fish schooling in a tank along with a loggerhead sea turtle and striped bass. “In a year they will be 30 or 40 pounds,” he said, and will have outgrown the tanks.

“Many people who are concerned about animal rights tend not to be concerned about fish in the same way,” said Crippen. But at the Virginia Living Museum, aquatic species get the same careful management as terrestrial animals, including plenty of room to roam their watery environments.

The Virginia Living Museum has grown and evolved since it first opened in 1966 as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium. After a major expansion in the early 1980s, the museum adopted the “living museum” concept, and became the first of this kind east of the Mississippi.

“Many people think we are a zoo,” said Judy Molnar, who has been an educator here for 29 years. “But what first drew me here — and what keeps me here — is that this is a museum whose prime mission is education.”

This day, Molnar was leading a classroom program on geology for fifth-grade classes from Riverside Elementary School of Newport News. After passing around a variety of rocks, Molnar asked for a volunteer to be “Magma Man.” She chooses “the boy with the red-hot T-shirt.” Together, they guide the class through the four routes that molten magma might take in becoming a rock.

Lisa Palmer, “Magma Man’s” teacher, looks forward to the once-a-year visit to the museum with her class. “We taught geology a few weeks ago. But the facilities are so great here, and I get to see whether the kids really understand what we’ve been teaching,” she said.

Molnar is part of an education staff that offers enrichment programs for area schools, home schoolers and groups of all ages. These offerings are as varied as the species on display — classes that are indoor and outdoor, onsite or offsite, custom or pre-planned, parties and special events. There’s even a summer course for grandparents and their grandchildren.

In addition to its mammals, fish and frogs, the museum has an extensive native plant herbarium, growing more than 250 species of native shrubs and flowers for use in the indoor galleries and outdoor animal enclosures. Outdoor exhibits include the butterfly garden, a native plant teaching garden, and a historic “Virginia garden” that shows the evolution of planting in the New World as colonial settlers introduced foreign species.

Outdoor nature playgrounds and indoor discovery centers offer opportunities to touch and feel, and a state-of-the-art planetarium has celestial offerings.

A green building demonstration house features cutaways showing energy-efficient and recycled building materials; cisterns; a green roof for stormwater management; photovoltaic cells; and a thermal heating and cooling system.

The Virginia Living Museum, part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trail Network, is compact, walkable and decidedly child-friendly. Indoors and out, there are discovery centers where kids can meet the underside of a live horseshoe crab or crawl through hollow “logs” and climb on elastic “spider webs.”

But it’s not just humans who benefit from these different activities.

Each afternoon at 1 p.m., museum staff offers public animal enrichment activities for some of its residents — the coyote, vulture, alligator, otter, beaver, and red wolf. These activities — such as hiding food, setting up obstacles for climbing and other variations from the routine life at the museum — help to relieve the boredom that inevitably results from having readily available food, shelter and safety.

It’s never the same day twice here — and this is as true for the animals that live at the Virginia Living Museum as it is for its visitors.

Virginia Living Museum

Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, VA, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

  • Admission is $17/adults and $13/ages 3–12. Discounts are available for members and military.
  • Animal enrichment activities take place at 1 p.m. daily. Small group tours behind the scenes are available at 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays for an additional fee.
  • Special exhibits in 2015 include Reptiles Bizarre and Beautiful (Feb. 14–16); and Frogs, A Chorus of Colors (March 14).
  • Upcoming Abbitt Planetarium shows include: Geminid Meteor Shower (Dec. 13) and holiday shows through December.
  • For information, call 757-595-1900 or visit http://thevlm.org/.
  • To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrail Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
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Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Judy Triska on December 01, 2014:

Thank you Leslie... for capturing the mission and atmosphere of the Virginia Living Museum in your story!

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