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Jewish Journal

Boas and turtles and opossoms — OH MY!

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 17, 2013 | 5:05 pm

Leslie Gordon, program manager of the Natural History Museum’s vertebrate live-animal program, shows off some of her charges from the museum’s new Nature Lab.

Leslie Gordon has worn a sling holding a baby opossum round the clock, imitating how the marsupial’s mama would have carried the critter around in her pouch. She’s driven throughout the night to Arizona and back to transport a red harvester ant colony to Los Angeles, as the stinging insects are too delicate to ship by mail. And she’s even gotten up close and personal with a 9-foot-long Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor named Peace: “She’s the nicest, sweetest boa I’ve ever met,” said Gordon, who is program manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s vertebrate live-animal program. “She’s an old lady, so she’s had medical procedures. I’ve had to give her an enema, I’ve had to take blood out of her heart to get a sample, and she’s never struck or bitten.”

It’s all part of a day’s work for Gordon, who cares for, trains and creates educational programs around all the museum’s vertebrates — animals with backbones. Her charges include up to 30 species of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, most of them native or invasive species in Southern California. Think Western skinks, Pacific tree frogs, Western spadefoot toads, California newts, a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, gopher snakes, red-eared slider turtles, rats, and a bullfrog that Gordon calls “an adorable terror” because her invasive species tends to gobble up every smaller indigenous creature that crosses its path.

Not to mention 5-month-old Avocado, so named because that was the size the opossum was when she arrived at the museum after being rescued from a dog mauling, from which Gordon and vets nursed her back to health. 

You can see many of Gordon’s charges in the museum’s new 6,000-square-foot interactive Nature Lab, which opened in June as part of a $135 million, multiyear redesign that doubled the museum’s program space and also includes a 3 1/2-acre outdoor Nature Gardens exhibition. Gordon was an instrumental part of the lab’s design team: “Basically, all the cages in the Nature Lab were created to my specifications,” the petite, 39-year-old said while breezing through the doors of the gleaming facility.  

She paused by an enclosure in which a 5-foot-long rattlesnake, rescued from a drug bust and named Obsidian because of his unusually dark coloring, was coiled in repose; his cage, she said, was created with a range of available temperatures, climbing perches and enough room for the serpent to unspool his scaly length.  

Nearby is the rat habitat, or “rattitat” as Gordon calls it: two Plexiglass towers connected by about 20 feet of clear tubing to imitate the kind of sewer dwellings the rodents might seek out in the urban wild. Inside are 14 female Norway rats whose twitching noses and whiskers seem to be protruding from every hiding spot. Here and there are special feeding devices — also designed by Gordon — sporting hidden treats the rats have to figure out how to release with their paws.

“Animals don’t generally thrive when their food is dumped in their bowl in front of them on a daily basis, so we’re stimulating them mentally by giving them something to work for,” Gordon explained. “Millions of years of evolution have essentially programmed them to solve problems, to find and seek out food. So we create enrichment toys. Our goal is to provide animals with the ability to exhibit species-specific behaviors and have as many of the comforts of their natural environment as we can possibly provide.”

Gordon is quick to respond to those who question whether it’s humane to keep animals in captivity: “I really do see these animals as ambassadors,” she said, adding that she’s thrilled if she can convince just one person to stop and look at a snake instead of reaching for a shovel. “[Further], life in the wild is brutal and painful. Animals live under constant stress looking for food and often with terrible diseases; hence everything that I bring in here from the wild is loaded with parasites. And I defy [critics] to find anyone who cares more about little creatures than I do,” she added.  

"We have incredible specimens and a new, accessible approach to the way we convey information in our exhibits," said Dr. Jane Pisano, president and director of NHM. "But there's something magical that happens when our visitors interact with live animals and experience the presentations that Leslie makes possible. Those shows allow our science expertise to resonates in a fun, memorable way."

During an interview in her office at the museum, Gordon was casually dressed in jeans, funky blue glasses and matching earrings, her voice quietly intense as she discussed her love for her charges. On her desk is a sketchpad in which she’s drawing new designs for enrichment devices. Nearby is the shell of a Matamata turtle, “a very delicate animal,” she said, that she cared for and nursed in his last days. “I’m always sad when any animal dies, even now that I’ve had hundreds of them in my life,” she said. “But you know that somewhere there’s another little life coming along that needs you.”

Gordon traces her passion for animals to her mother, who worked as a secretary at the family’s Reform synagogue in Chicago; mom was a consummate storyteller “who taught me to love the underdog in any situation,” she said. “And now that I’m grown, I take care of reptiles and amphibians, who are nature’s underdogs; they are hugely important in the ecosystem, and yet they can be reviled by humans.”

Gordon’s childhood Judaism also reinforced her love of the natural world. Her father taught Hebrew school and sang in the choir at the family’s temple, where Leslie attended synagogue every Friday night, became bat mitzvah and marveled at the number of prayers that described nature. One of the family’s favorite songs was “Eli, Eli,” which speaks of “the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens,” she said. Gordon also recalls her wonder at looking at the stars from her temple’s sukkah.

Initially she hoped to become a professional artist — with animal themes figuring prominently in her work — and so she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Loyola University Chicago. When a Hillel leader suggested she take up theater design, Gordon learned welding and carpentry to help create the sets in her school’s drama department. It was a skill set that proved invaluable when she got her first animal-related gig building habitats at The Nature of Wildworks in Topanga Canyon in 1998.  

That led to a stint at the Los Angeles Zoo’s zookeeper training program the following year, when Gordon graduated with high commendation — and eventually to a job in the zoo’s behavioral enrichment department, where she designed toys for the elephants, among other creatures.

In 1999, Gordon also began working at the Natural History Museum, supervising what at the time was “just a little menagerie,” she said.  

Over the years, she increased the collection from about 15 species to its current population, all the while establishing a professional health care and husbandry regimen as well as selecting further species for the museum. Along the way, she created daily live animal presentations and the Critter Club for preschoolers as well as co-founding, with entomologist Brian Brown, a program now called Rascals, which encourages people to document species of reptiles and amphibians found in their neighborhoods. 

Gordon was also instrumental in picking additional species for the new Nature Lab, including the Mediterranean house gecko, a population of which was discovered by citizen scientists in Chatsworth. “These lizards like to hang out on your porch eating moths,” she said.

“I feel that I do God’s work here at the museum,” she added, while feeding Avocado a hibiscus blossom to help her learn that hands aren’t scary. “Just as my parents worked tirelessly for our temple … so do I for an institution I believe is teaching the moral principles of nature.”

For more information about the museum, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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