As of the time of writing this, when one goes to the website that Albion College has for the Whitehouse Nature Center, one is greeted by the following message.
“The Whitehouse Nature Center’s visitor center is closed and will remain so for the near future. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Jason Raddatz, the previous head of the Nature Center, left the position at the beginning of this semester. While the college undergoes a search for a new head, the visitor center itself remains closed off to the general public.
The visitor center is the building that greets visitors on arrival to the Nature Center. Usually, it’s open for the general public to come in and take a look around. Snakes and frogs and turtles of varying species are kept in tanks. The animal’s habitats are maintained by a staff that, over the summer, numbered close to twenty active Nature Center Assistants said Orlando Velasquez, Dallas senior who worked at the Nature Center until July.
Recently though, there’s only been one student working with the animals while the doors remain closed to the general public.
“At first I was told that I’m only allowed to work an hour a day,” said Dylan Mitchell, Detroit junior. “It was literally ‘come in, feed the animals, that was it.’ So I couldn’t take them out like I do now. I couldn’t change the water. I would feed them one day, and then I would pick an animal for the next day to completely change their habitat.”
Mitchell explained that the process of cleaning one of the bigger tanks would take close to an hour and a half, just to get rid of the dirty water and fill it back up.
“That’s not even with the cleaning involved in it,” Mitchell said, gesturing to the smaller tanks. “All these little tanks, I can probably get them done in like 30 minutes, but it takes another 15 minutes just to fill them back up, so that’s 45 minutes of my hour gone.”
Mitchell said that being restricted on time had a significant impact on the animals.
“The animals weren’t getting the care that they needed. I started seeing it very early on,” he said. Mitchell gestured to the snapping turtle they have in the visitor center
“She will be the first one to come up to you and want head rubs from you,” he said.
“Then I started noticing that every time I would go to look at her glass, she was trying to bite me. These are big behavior shifts within the animals, so I wanted to see what else was happening.” Mitchell then gestured to Queen T, one of the other turtles at the visitor center.
“Usually she’ll walk around immediately and survey the area,” he said. “She’ll just stay in her shell now; she’s still not coming back out.”
Mitchell said he thinks “It’s really unfair for what the college’s doing because they aren’t taking into account the animal aspect of it.”
Velasquez explained the importance of having the animals interact with people.
“Our snakes, all of our animals, were acquainted with and had experience with being held by humans and interacting with humans,” Velasquez said. “Whenever any person would attempt to hold the animal or interact with it in any way, the animal would not react in a violent or erratic way. It would know ‘oh, I’m about to be handled.’ People could just pick them up, no problem.”
Velazquez said that one of the snakes escaped its tank and was aggressive when he tried recapturing it. “The entirety of our work over the past few years is being undone, where the animals don’t even trust a human to approach them,” he said.
The animals were often featured at events that the Nature Center participated in. On occasion, kids would be able to hold and handle the animals comfortably without the fear of being bitten.
“Undoing that process of having them accustomed to being handled is crucial,” he said. “We have our community outreach programs. Whenever they come over, we want the animals to be able to be handled so that kids can then interact with them.”
This semester, Mitchell has been the only student employee currently working at the nature center.
“It doesn’t help that they’re putting everything on one student,” Mitchell said. “I can’t get approved for more people, and once I do get approved for more people, they’re gonna cut the hours down.”
Mitchell, who also works at Taco Bell, said he feels overloaded. Without the help of extra employees, he feels overwhelmed.
There is no shortage of people who want to work in the Nature Center, though.
“We need manpower. During Briton Bash, I wasn’t really allowed to take a list of people that wanted to sign up, but I did anyway.” Mitchell said that he tallied nearly 200 signatures of students who wanted to work at the Nature Center.
Mitchell said that most of these students had been previously employed at the nature center, whether over the summer or during the previous school year.
“But some of them just wanted their jobs back. And it sucked that I had to be the one to tell them. I literally left Briton Bash and I sat in my car for about two hours because I couldn’t believe the college put all that on me, to have to tell around 200 people that they don’t have their jobs anymore.”
The Whitehouse Nature Center’s trails are open to the public. They are currently being managed by facilities. The visitor center remains closed to the general public while a search for a new director for the nature center is conducted. The visitor center is only available for academic or research purposes.
The original publication of this article, at 9:30 am on Oct. 5, said that the Whitehouse Nature Center previously employed the most students of all campus jobs. This statement has been removed for accuracy. Clarification was also made to information provided by Orlando Velasquez.
Can the animals be released or are they too domesticated now?