Noe Valley Voice November 2004

Family Adventures Close to Home
Spiders and Snakes at Ants, Oh My!

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"It looks like a chicken nugget," Ari yells.

"Hmmm. Eat it!" Miles shouts back.

I'm following my son Miles and his buddy Ari down the busy South of Market sidewalk at a distance that the two 8-year-olds can almost tolerate (they've requested that I stay at least a block behind them so they can pretend they are alone). But, at the prospect of either of them eating something they've found on the street, I quickly catch up.

I'm relieved to learn that the chicken nugget in question is actually a salamander displayed in a jar of formaldehyde in the window of the California Academy of Sciences' new home on Howard Street. The enticing display includes dozens of specimens of reptiles and amphibians, and several other creatures that are hard to classify. We linger at the window, pointing out the biggest snake, the creepiest spider, and the cutest newt, as cars honk and squeal on the street behind us.

The din of traffic and construction on Howard is just one of the clues that this trip to the Academy, the fourth largest natural history museum in the United States, will be different from our past excursions to the museum's digs in Golden Gate Park. (The Golden Gate Park site is undergoing a major renovation and will reopen in 2008.) The lobby here is all concrete and soaring ceilings, and looks like a hip dot-com startup from the late 1990s.

"Ants! I adore ants!" Ari shouts when he spies the banner outside the museum's featured exhibition--"ANTS: Hidden Worlds Revealed."

"My mom adores killing them," Miles says.

The docent lingering next to the enormous army ant display gives me a look that indicates she might be a disciple of the E. O. Wilson school of ant management. (When asked what to do when ants invade the kitchen, the eminent entomologist famously replied, "Watch your step.")

We see honey-pot ants, carpenter ants, red harvester ants, and Argentine ants, all housed in neat displays that reflect their natural habitats. (On the day we go, the army ant colony has been obliterated by some invasive beetles, but museum officials say the new population will be on display by the time this story is published.) The Argentine ants are shown in a picnic display, so you can watch them swarming over pieces of fruit, sandwiches, plates, and utensils. Oh joy.

"These are the ants most commonly seen in Bay Area kitchens," I read to the boys.

"So those are the ones you like to kill, right?" Miles says.

"I don't like to kill them," I say, loud enough for the ant-friendly docent to hear. "I just try to create an environment that signals to them that they'd be happier outdoors."

"Whatever that means," Ari says.

"She likes to kill them," Miles says. "She uses Raid and masking tape."

"Look at that cool fish tank," I say.

Miles and Ari rush toward the cylindrical two-story saltwater tank filled with swaying corals and sea plants, and dozens of tropical fish. The boys wiggle into a pair of concave portholes in the tank and proceed to commune with the fish up close, making faces and exclaiming over the clownfish, who looks just like the star of Finding Nemo.

We wander down a corridor lined with tanks and terrariums, stacked in two rows so that smaller visitors can view giant Australian lungfish and blue-eyed moray eels in the lower tanks while grownups get eye-to-eye with the Suriname toads, giant salamanders, and electric eels on top.

A trio of prehistoric-looking snapping turtles occupies a circular tank topped with white netting at the end of the corridor, next to the ever-popular touch pool.

"That looks like a dunk tank," I say.

The turtles, with their hooked beaks, clawed limbs, and wide powerful jaws, press against the glass to check us out.

"I wouldn't go in that dunk tank for anything," Miles says, as one of the turtles attempts to climb toward the netting.

Maybe there's something edgy about the South of Market setting, but the Academy's snakes seem more active than they ever did in Golden Gate Park. As we make our way down a tunnel of curvy blond wood and hanging vines called "SSsssnake Alley," the boas and anacondas rise up and flick their forked tongues at us. The boys pause in front of a northern pine snake that stretches its torso, bringing its flat, snaky head right to their faces. My skin prickles and I hurry past, but the boys don't find it creepy at all.

"He likes us," Miles says.

Upstairs, the museum has reproduced a classic science classroom that's equipped with long tables, presentation boards, and art supplies, alongside old oak curio cabinets, Victorian butterfly nets, and burnished brass microscopes. Framed sepia photos of scientists line the walls, and a taxidermy alligator appears to be climbing toward the ceiling.

Miles and Ari immediately grab markers and start drawing gators, snakes, ants, and fish on the white board.

The boys give wide berth to the kiddie area, which is furnished with a water table, a puppet theater, and Velcro-backed flora and fauna that stick to the soft fabric walls.

"Little kid stuff," Miles scoffs.

A central area features videos and displays of astrobiological phenomena.

"Astrobiology is the study of life in the entire universe," I read from an information podium.

Miles and Ari aren't listening. They're plopped onto beanbag chairs, where they're watching a video about deep-sea vents on the Jovian moon Europa.

The Naturalist Center, also on the second floor, is filled with the Academy's collection of skeletons, eggs, nests, and stuffed specimens. Miles quickly locates his old favorites, the wily raccoon and the scary hawk.

Ari sits at a computer to research eels, a subject he tells me is "fascinating."

"I like the gulper eel the best," he says, clicking on a photo to enlarge the image of the sharp-toothed creature. "Or maybe the vampire eel. I don't know."

As we make our way toward the stairs, we pass terrariums housing tarantulas, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies.

"I don't like tarantulas," Miles says, peering through that glass at the hand-sized spider.

"Yeah," Ari agrees. "They never do anything."

"Fine with me," I say.

It's feeding time at the penguin tank, so we rush downstairs to watch. The wader-clad marine biologist stands in the water, hand-feeding fish to the penguins and explaining their lifestyle as the tuxedoed birds dart about with limp herring in their beaks. One penguin swims past the boys, leaving a trail of white dust in its wake.

"What's that?" Ari asks.

"That's penguin poop," the scientist says in her best official voice. "Notice how little they excrete. They've got very efficient digestive systems."

I'm certain the boys don't hear the second part, as they're rolling around on the floor laughing.

"What kind of penguins are they?" I ask.

In the same serious tone, the scientist replies, "They're African penguins, but they're often called jackass penguins because of the sound they make when they mark their territory."

Over the boys' howls, I hear the braying of the penguins, which is decidedly jackass-like.

The boys repeatedly ask me, "What kind of penguins were they again?" as we make our way to the Grow Café for a snack.

The walls of the museum's tiny café are lined with information about and photos of sustainable agricultural methods and nutrition. Somehow, Miles and Ari locate Rice Krispie squares among the dozens of healthy, reasonably priced choices in the snack case. We divide the sticky snack three ways as we exit into the noise and bustle of Howard Street at rush hour.

"I forgot where we were!" Miles says, as we weave through the crowds of conventioneers and panhandlers that line the sidewalk along Fourth Street. "It felt like we were far away from the city."


The Academy of Sciences--home of a world-famous natural history museum, the Morrison Planetarium, and Steinhart Aquarium--has been relocated to a six-story building at 875 Howard Street while its complex in Golden Gate Park is being rebuilt. (Note: The planetarium will be closed during the four-year renovation.)

The Howard Street site is about two and a half blocks from the Powell Street BART Station. Parking is available at Fifth and Mission Garage.

Hours are 10 to 5 daily, and admission is $7 for adults, $4.50 for teens and seniors, $2 for kids under 12, and free for those under 4. Admission is free on the first Wednesday of the month.

This month, as part of the Academy's "Neighborhood Free Days," residents living in Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, the Castro, and the Haight (zip codes 94114, 94131, and 94117) will be allowed in free on Nov. 19, 20, and 21. For other special events during November, including festivities celebrating Native American Heritage Month, check or call 415-321-8000.