A Deep Dive into Animal Conditions at the Whitehouse Nature Center

A female common snapping turtle named Miranda rests on a wooden dock in her tank at the Whitehouse Nature Center. Miranda’s shell is curving up along the edges and is beginning to appear sunken in (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

Albion’s Whitehouse Nature Center (WNC) provides visitors with 144 acres worth of land and five miles of trails, for anything from recreational activities to searching through the various plant and bird species. The WNC’s indoor facilities include a visitor center equipped with a classroom and a live exhibit housing reptiles and fish.

Director of the WNC and Executive Director of the Center for Sustainability and the Environment (CSE) Monica Day said she is responsible for the regulation of these facilities and the functioning of the center. When it comes to the care of the animals at the WNC, Day said it is the responsibility of the student workers.

The Whitehouse Nature Center Animals 

Currently, the WNC houses seven turtles, deriving from the species groups of the common snapping turtle, painted turtle and eastern box turtle. The center is also home to an eastern milk snake and a tank with an array of different species of fish.

According to WNC documents provided by Rossford, Ohio senior Madilyn Archambeau, the animals were “obtained, found or potentially bought” by former directors of the WNC.

A male eastern box turtle named Darth Sidious sits surrounded by plants and rocks in his enclosure. According to WNC documents provided by Archambeau, he was taken from the wild by an individual in Parma and then acquired by the center for unknown reasons in 1982 (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

Former Director Jason Raddatz, who worked at the WNC when the eastern milk snake was acquired, left the position at the start of the fall 2022 semester. After Raddatz left, a single student worker managed the center on their own until Day was hired. 

The Pleiad reached out to previous WNC Director Jason Raddatz on Feb. 21 and Feb. 24. He did not respond in time for publication.

In terms of obtaining the animals, Assistant Professor in the Earth and Environment Department Joe Lee-Cullin said they heard some of the animals had been “taken out of nature and brought to the center.”

“Even though it was before my time here, I found (it) pretty alarming,” Lee-Cullin said. “I suspect, just an assumption, that it wasn’t done in an entirely ethical or good way.”

According to an article from BBC Earth, once animals are taken out of their natural environments and habitats, it is extremely difficult to get them back to a place where they can survive on their own. Especially when they have been cared for and tended to by humans for such a long period of their lives; their chances of survival in the wild drop.

Day said the practice of taking animals out of the wild is “extremely outdated.”

According to a former WNC student worker, who has chosen to remain anonymous, the WNC rehomed a handful of animals after Day took over as director.

“She said that the animals weren’t her priority,” the former student worker said. “We had to relocate our three frogs, a turtle and one of the snakes.”

Regulation of Animal Care

Albion College employs an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), responsible for regulating the use of animals in research and educational settings. Marc Roy, professor of biology and the head chair of the Albion College IACUC, said the IACUC is a “responsive committee.”

“When faculty or students intend to do research with animals or use animals in educational settings, they have to submit a proposal,” Roy said. “The committee is in charge of evaluating that proposal, then accepting or denying it with a specific eye focused towards the welfare of the animals.”

However, Roy said the IACUC committee has no say or influence on what the WNC does with the animals under its care; the center is an autonomous institution on campus who can determine its own rules and regulations.

“The animals held at the Whitehouse Nature Center aren’t regulated under the Animal Welfare Act that we use strictly on our committee,” Roy said.

Roy added that the committee once investigated the record-keeping of a previous WNC director.

“People didn’t know if animals were being fed on time,” Roy said.

Since Day’s hiring, the IACUC has not been involved in any regulatory or investigative activities at the WNC. Roy said Day specifically is responsible for and in charge of the center’s animals and the center itself.

Red, a 22-year-old red-eared slider, rests on a raised platform in her tank. According to WNC documentation provided by Archambeau, she was acquired through a “possible purchase” (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

Despite the WNC being an autonomous institution on campus, Day said she connects with experts in the animal care field to alter, adjust and change certain practices.

“We have an advisory committee that makes decisions around policies for the Whitehouse Nature Center, it’s a collection of people that have been a part of it for a long time,” Day said. “We assemble once or twice a semester to talk about activities here and discuss questions that may arise.”

Along with the advisory committee, Day said she also researches and compares the WNC with other collegiate and state nature centers and reaches out to other individuals in the field for guidance.

“We share activities and care documents with state experts and get feedback about their diets and certain animal practices at the center,” Day said. “One of the things that we changed, because of this, was turtle time.”

“Turtle time” refers to letting the turtles roam on the floor while supervised, which was previously common practice for WNC workers. Archambeau said this was a risky practice because of the harm that could come to the turtles from the temperature shift between their enclosures and the room. According to Day, it doesn’t provide them any significant health benefits.

The tank that houses Miranda, the common snapping turtle at the WNC (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

However, according to the anonymous former student WNC worker, ending this practice may not be entirely good for the health and well-being of the turtles.

“The fact that the animals aren’t getting taken out anymore is concerning, they are going to start getting atrophy in their muscles and their bones will start to decay,” the former student worker said. “It’s going to cause a lot of negative health issues.”

The former student worker added that though the turtles are aquatic animals, they also need to spend time on solid land. They said time on land is an important way for the turtles to maintain their health, by giving them the chance to dry off and absorb UV rays. They also said it supports turtle shell health and gives them a better ability to support their body weight on land.

How Current Student Workers Care For the Animals

Currently, the center employs six student workers. Archambeau said she and fellow student workers help to care for the animals at the center.

“As a student employee here, one of my biggest concerns, at least when I first get here, is to take care of the animals,” Archambeau said.

Archambeau added that she makes sure they have been fed and their enclosures are clean.

Agatha, the two-year-old painted turtle, rests on some rocks in her enclosure. According to WNC documents, she was brought to the WNC after being found on a road in 2022 (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

The care of the animals and their enclosures is a daily chore; Day said the care follows the same rules that have been established and followed by previous WNC directors.

Archambeau said the center employs a handful of binders and electronic documents to keep track of the animals’ diets, when they eat, when their cages are cleaned and when filters are changed.

“There’s a very good amount of information and documents on the animals that are still here, as well as ones that were here at one point and are no longer here,” Archambeau said.

Day said the WNC staff has the responsibility to care for the animals; they act as animal ambassadors who help visitors get a close-up experience with nature in a controlled environment.

However, the anonymous former WNC student worker said that when Day took over the center, she requested that the student workers follow new rules limiting  handling of the animals. Which, the former student worker said, impacted the socialization of the snakes and turtles held at the center.

According to an article published by Oklahoma State University, snakes are typically timid creatures that benefit from interaction with humans to foster comfort in human care and to enhance their socialization. The former student worker said human interaction allows them to feel more secure within their enclosure and human care.

Bo, the five-year-old male eastern milk snake’s enclosure, is built into a wall at the WNC. It is the only enclosure currently occupied out of the five on the wall, and he is the only snake currently housed at the center (Photo by Phoebe Holm).

According to the former student worker, they and other WNC workers “had so much stuff planned to better the care of the animals, and we were told we weren’t allowed to do any of it.”

The former student worker said plans were being developed by student workers to create a bioactive turtle habitat to provide the turtles with a self-sustaining environment. They said Day put a stop to the initiative because of maintenance concerns. The former student worker added that a self-filtering water tank containing vegetation, which was used to feed the turtles, was also removed after it was installed by student workers as a part of the initiative.

After this, the former student worker said there was concern from WNC staff that Day wasn’t feeding the turtles what their diets required. In addition, the former student worker said the WNC practices, both old and new, and the lack of certain care procedures have most likely “reduced the animal’s life expectancies.”

What Comes Next

According to the former student worker, in the past, a group of former WNC student employees reached out to and discussed concerns with several higher-level staff and faculty members at Albion College about the conditions of the animals.

“We went to Joe (Calvaruso), the interim president, and voiced our concerns about the animal care. We went to the assistant provost and the dean of students, and it didn’t work,” the former student worker said. “We went to everyone we could, and we had staff members come with us to the center. None of those efforts worked. We just wanted her to take care of the animals, and they chalked it up to it ‘being her nature center.’”

The former student worker said that this issue should be taken to the Board of Trustees, to someone who doesn’t have an emotional connection to the WNC, for a completely unbiased solution, adding that it would be beneficial to inform President Wayne Webster of the concerns.

“I do trust Webster, that he will make the right decision in that sense. Just because he has been committed to listening to the students and their issues,” the former student worker said. “More of the administration needs to be involved.”

A tank in the center that houses a variety of fish (Photo by Phoebe Holm).
The enclosure that houses Elvira and Sheldon, female and male eastern box turtles, respectively. They are two of the three eastern box turtles housed at the WNC (Photo by Phoebe Holm).
The enclosure of Darth Sidious, the third of the three eastern box turtles housed at the center (Photo by Phoebe Holm).
About Phoebe Holm 19 Articles
Phoebe Holm is a junior from Boyne City, Michigan and a psychology major at Albion College. She is interested in understanding the human mind, writing about things that make her passionate and creating art. You can always find her listening to music and watching movies. Contact Phoebe via email at PJH12@albion.edu

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