Freddy Rodriguez is having a hard time persuading people to pet the snake. Coiled around Rodriguez's forearms, the three-foot African ball python occasionally sticks out its tongue to smell its surroundings. It may be an innocent gesture for a snake, but in this home for people with Alzheimer's disease in Vancouver, it's causing most of the confused seniors to recoil and shy away.
"A lot of people don't really like it," Rodriguez admitted to me on the way in, as he pulled the snake from its protective box. Since then, he's done a great job of presenting the snake and explaining it to the old folks, even if most of them are unwilling to take a chance on touching it.
Rodriguez is a Zoo Animal Presenter (ZAP) with the Oregon Zoo. The ZAP program, funded by $160,000 in annual grants, is aimed at young people from schools with high levels of federal assistance. They're trained to do outreach with animals to people who might not otherwise go to the zoo, in exchange for around $8 an hour. The program just won a diversity award with top honors from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Ten kids are recruited each year and last year, ZAP reached out to 9,000 people, at retirement homes like this one, Boys and Girls Clubs, and public events. There are various challenges, says program coordinator Pam McElwee, including the inevitability of being pooped on, but potential candidates are screened explicitly for poop squeamishness during their interviews.
The kids also need to learn how to present animals in different ways, to kids and seniors. "Often folks with Alzheimer's, they'll say, 'No, I don't want to pet it,' then you'll bring it around again and they'll say, 'Oh, what's this?'" McElwee adds.
Next year, Rodriguez will be a counselor for Urban Nature Overnights, the zoo's outdoor education program that takes kids on camping trips and night hikes. But for now, he's stuck holding the unpopular snake.
His coworkers are having a better time. Cesar Rubio's ferret would normally be asleep at this time of day, and as a result its docile nature has drawn plenty of appreciative pats, notwithstanding its pungent aroma. Miguel Calderon-Lopez's armadillo is intriguing enough for people to give the animal a poke with their fingers, if only to watch it curl up into a ball. Even Tiesha Mills' prickly hedgehog is cute enough to draw the odd ill-advised hand, followed reliably by a swift withdrawal and an exclamation along the lines of "ouch." Tracy Ocampo has a rabbit. She can't lose.
"Oh my goodness, what nice soft fur. Oh good gravy, what a cute little animal," says a blind old lady, when Ocampo comes by.
Since the blind lady is in the mood to say yes, Mills moves in with the hedgehog, and the lady obliges her with a quick pet.
"Oh, goodness!" she shrieks, withdrawing her hand. Now it's Rodriguez's turn.
"Would you like to pet the snake?" he asks.
"Oh, no, I don't think so."
"This one's from Africa," he says, persisting.
"Well that's a long walk," she says. They laugh.
Eventually, Rodriguez coaxes her into touching the snake on the condition that the facility manager, whose nametag says "Jody," will touch it at the same time. "One, two, three," says Jody, watching the blind lady touch the snake as she keeps her own arms by her sides.
"You lied!" Rodriguez whispers, admonishing the facility manager.
"Oh, he's very smooth," says the blind lady, not quite overhearing. Rodriguez says people often stereotype snakes as being slimy, and is clearly glad to have won over at least one customer with his presentation skills—blind or not.
"The irony is that the rabbits are the ones who bite," he tells me confidentially, on the way out. "The snakes have never bitten anyone."
What a lesson for the ages.