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Creepy Crawly Critters 

Kelsey Yates has dedicated her life to eradicating stigmas and protecting Oregon wildlife

click to enlarge COURTESY HIGH DESERT MUSEUM
  • Courtesy High Desert Museum

In a self-proclaimed dog town, it can be easy to overlook the importance of other creatures, especially when it comes to the proper functioning of our ecosystem. Kelsey Yates, the associate curator of wildlife at The High Desert Museum, has spent the majority of her adult life advocating for the slimy, scaled and shelled creatures that often get overlooked in lieu of dogs, cats and hamsters. Yates worked as an aquarist for several years before finding herself in the high desert, looking after a wide range of creatures in the museum Desertarium. "It's so important to have creepy crawlies on display," she said. "Our main goal is to foster a positive view towards these animals. They're crucial to a healthy ecosystem."

What does a day in the life of a wildlife curator look like? "When I get to the museum I start by visiting the animals, making sure that everyone is healthy and happy," she explained. "I get the animals prepared for the visitors and then I go behind the scenes, working with the animals on training and conditioning. Eventually, I move into enrichment; changing up the enclosures, adding new features. We have volunteers come by throughout the day to talk about the animals while I work with them hands-on." 

Yates explained that handling the animals is a vital part of the job, because it helps get them accustomed to human interaction for off-site presentations. She works with everything from lizards and snakes to tarantulas and turtles. A good amount of her time is spent training tortoises for human interaction. "The desert tortoises are highly intelligent," she explained. "I've been training them for at-will participation. Basically, the tortoises decide for themselves whether or not they want to participate in a presentation. They touch their noses to a little target if they want to be handled, and they sit on a small station if they want to be touched. For the most part, they love participating. They like the attention and they like the treats." 

click to enlarge COURTESY HIGH DESERT MUSEUM
  • Courtesy High Desert Museum

Yates has been working with many of the same tortoises since she started at the museum in 2018.  "People don't generally realize how long reptiles and amphibians live, but we've had a lot of our animals since the early 2000s," Yates explained. "The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife brings us a lot of our animals; our collection of reptiles and amphibians is mostly comprised of former pets. ODFW will bring us confiscated animals that were being kept illegally. Very, very rarely we'll wild collect, though we try not to. A couple of our reptiles were collected from the wild so that we can offer a comprehensive educational experience. Of course, we never wild collect animals that are rare or protected. Additionally, all of the animals that we have are non-releasable, usually because they were taken from the wild and kept as pets illegally. An animal becomes non-releasable when it spends too much time outside of its natural environment." She explained how important it is for the public to be aware of which native species are protected or threatened.

click to enlarge COURTESY HIGH DESERT MUSEUM
  • Courtesy High Desert Museum

Sadly, it isn't uncommon for native creatures to be ripped from their homes and kept confined. "Oregon's native turtle species are protected, and it is illegal to remove one from the wild to keep as a pet," Yates explained in a recent blog post. "There are a few exotic turtle species in Oregon that are illegal to possess, the most well-known being the red-eared slider. It's now invasive in Oregon thanks to the exotic pet trade. The message here would be to always do thorough research when deciding whether to acquire an exotic pet, because they are not always legal. They often require care that is beyond what the average person can provide."

click to enlarge COURTESY HIGH DESERT MUSEUM
  • Courtesy High Desert Museum

Some of the other Desertarium dwellers were purchased legally as pets, but were relinquished after it became clear just how much time and energy went into caring for a reptile or amphibian. "I want to emphasize how important responsible pet-ownership is," said Yates. "It's so important for people to do their homework before acquiring a pet. Reptiles and amphibians have care requirements that are so different from those of cats and dogs. If you purchase a tortoise, you'd better expect to care for that tortoise for 90 years!"

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