Most people don’t think of petting gila monsters and boa snakes. But for students in Southern Utah University’s Animal Ambassadors club, this is part of their college experience and a meaningful way for them to give back to the broader community.
For twelve years, the Animal Ambassadors club has been the outreach branch of the department of biology with the goal of educating the local community about animals. They have mostly reptiles and amphibians, such as iguanas, snakes, and gila monsters, but also a few tarantulas, hedgehogs and chinchillas.
Many people feel nervous around these sorts of animals, viewing them as foreign and potentially dangerous, so one of the Animal Ambassadors’ missions is to destigmatize them, debunk popular misconceptions about them and help people not be scared of them.
“Probably the biggest question we get is, ‘Oh will it hurt me, will it bite me?’ said Helen Boswell-Taylor, a professor of biology who is one of the club’s co-advisors. “But these animals have a place in this world just like we do, and they have evolved here, they have habitat here that they’re suited to, so we try to teach people that these are not animals to be afraid of. If you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone.”
Education about these different types of animals is an important tool the club uses to help people come to terms with their concerns about them. For example, they help people learn about which animals make good pets and which animals are best to not handle.
Animal Ambassadors house their animals in appropriate habitats in the basement of the Skaggs Center for Health & Molecular Sciences Building. Two students in the club work as the “care-techs,” feeding the animals, cleaning their living spaces and checking on their health.
All of the club’s animals are rescues; many times when people find loose animals roaming on their own, they find a home for them here. For example, one of the club’s recent rescues is a boa snake, which is now recovering from a respiratory illness.
“A lot of times they used to be people’s pets and they got rid of them or they got loose,” said Boswell-Taylor, “or the people were like, ‘wow, this tortoise is going to be living for a hundred years and it’s going to be almost 200 pounds and I can’t handle that.’”
Animal Ambassadors does their outreach events at elementary schools, middle schools, libraries, treatment facilities, detention centers, church groups and retirement homes throughout southern Utah. They typically do about two events a week, and reach about 8,000 learners over the course of a year. Often their presentations will be aligned with some specific curriculum that the given place requests, such as a presentation on conservation, evolutionary history or on local habitats.
“Whatever the topic, there’s always a conservation theme to everything that we do,” said Bill Heyborne, a co-advisor and the founder of Animal Ambassadors. “So we help people learn about why we should care about these animals, why we should care about their habitats, what happens if they go extinct. Those sorts of messages permeate everything we do.”
The local environment is also an important aspect of the club’s outreach education. “For example, reptiles are really prominent in this desert environment where we live,” said Madison Kesmetis, the club’s vice president, “So we have a gila monster and a desert tortoise, which we have a special permit for. It’s really cool to show people the animals that are more local.”
Heyborne founded the Animal Ambassadors club twelve years ago as a way to bring his passion for herpetology and animal outreach to other students. He started doing this sort of outreach education with live animals when he was an undergraduate student himself at SUU in the 1990s.
“A couple of professors when I was here recognized that I enjoyed doing that and maybe had some aptitude for it,” Heyborne said, “So when people would call the department and say ‘hey, is there anybody that could come to our school and talk about birds or whatever,’ they would just call me to go. So a few years later, when I came back here to teach as a professor, I wanted to formalize this and start a program here.”
Many students at SUU have found this same meaning and passion in the club. “A lot of the people who are now working as Animal Ambassadors are people who we talked to years ago as students back when they were in elementary or middle school,” said Heyborne. “In fact, there is a young woman who joined this year who told me that she saw Animal Ambassadors and loved it when she was in fourth grade and knew then that she wanted to join someday, and here she is as a college freshman.”
He also elaborated on the many benefits that these students can get from working with the club. Many start out as shy and introverted but soon learn to present in front of audiences, work with children and become more confident. They also get to learn and practice skills of adaptability and resilience as they deal with runaway animals or on-the-spot difficulties.
All students are welcome to join Animal Ambassadors, regardless of major. Trainings for new students are typically held once per semester, but video trainings are also available for students wishing to join mid-semester. Each year there are typically 50 active club members.
“I personally stay involved because it provides an amazing environment for hands-on learning,” said Xarissa Walker, the club’s president. “I’ve learned so much more about various reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates by being around them and having the amazing opportunity to be an animal caretaker.”Students interested in joining should contact Bill Heyborne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information on the club can be found on their website at https://suuanimalambassadors.weebly.com/.
Author: Emily Walters
Photos courtesy of Bill Heyborne, Ashley Hartwig and Xarissa Walker
This article was originally published in the October 2023 edition of the University Journal.