Truman students find passion with animals

Photo by Travis Maiden

Making your way through the halls of Magruder Hall, you might stumble upon Truman State University’s herpetarium,which houses snakes, lizards and more. Just inside that door there are several student volunteers and workers, like outreach manager junior Emily Melgren, handling the animals with care and helping others get to know more about them.

Melgren has been interested in reptiles since she was a child and wanted to be a herpetologist since she was in the third grade. She said she works at Dickerson Park Zoo as a volunteer educator. Melgren has worked at the herpetarium for three years, and this is her first year as manager.

Melgren said she doesn’t understand how people are so afraid of snakes — she refers to the snakes as dorks. She said snakes are easy to understand, but they have a negative stigma surrounding them. Melgren said she wants to show people that snakes are not dangerous and don’t bite if they don’t have to.

“I can’t imagine not working with animals,” Melgren said. “I don’t really like people as much as I like animals. They’re easier to understand.”

Melgren said her favorite snake in the herpetarium is the hooknose snake because he’s goofy and bad at a lot of things like eating and shedding. She said he is great with being handled by people, and she loves him for being such a wonderful friend.

Logistics manager senior Madeline Smith used to work at a veterinary clinic as a kennel assistant. She worked up to being a non-certified vet tech and got to check in appointments and help with surgeries. Smith said she has worked at the herpetarium since her sophomore year at Truman.

Smith said she wanted to join the herpetarium before coming to Truman because her friend brought her to the lab a few times. Smith said she was thinking about going into veterinary medicine and will be volunteering with animals in her freetime. Smith said the herpetarium gives her and others a chance to handle live animals they never could have before.

The herpetarium also gives people who are scared of snakes a chance to relax and try holding one. Smith said the workers and volunteers at the lab try to teach anyone who is interested about the reptiles so they won’t be afraid of them.

Smith said her favorite animals in the herpetarium are the gopher snake and spread milk snake.

“The gopher snake was one we got over the summer when I was working here taking care of everything,” Smith said. “He was a little bit thin when he came in, so I socialized him a lot and fed him, and he is a little bit fat now, actually. So I got kind of attached to him.”

Smith said socializing with animals is one of the best parts of working at the herpetarium. She said working with others like volunteer junior Sydney Gwaltney is a fantastic experience.

Gwaltney started working at the herpetarium her sophomore year. She said she wanted to get involved with the herpetarium before she came to Truman, but she didn’t know how. She found out she could volunteer during her sophomore year, so she jumped at the opportunity.

Gwaltney said she became interested in reptiles through YouTube videos about snake breeding and thought it was cool. She follows pet YouTubers and now has a leopard gecko because of her interest. Gwaltney said she is looking at a future in forensic science, but she will definitely have pet snakes.

Gwaltney said she has been able to learn more about snake mannerisms and how to handle other reptiles thanks to her time volunteering. She said each animal has their own personality, and it’s interesting how one snake can be completely different from another. Gwaltney said the herpetarium gave her the opportunity to be around snakes, her mom won’t let her own one.

“For me personally, I’ve always loved animals,” Gwaltney said. “I used to want to be a vet when I was a kid, and then that grew to reptiles a couple of years ago. It’s nice to be able to come in and be able to have the experience and to be around these animals all the time.”

Gwaltney said her favorite animal in the herpetarium is the speckled kingsnake because he was the first snake she got to take care of. This year she is in charge of the big rat snake and the alligator.

If you have any interest in reptiles, I’d recommend taking a walk to Truman’s herpetarium in Magruder and meeting some of their scaly friends every afternoon on weekdays.