I love petting animals. Furry ones, scaly ones, even spiky ones—though I’m more careful about spikes after an unfortunate plant petting experience. Years ago, I lovingly stroked a cactus with soft little red spots, only to discover that the “soft spots” were full of irritating bristles that imbedded in my finger.
While I often ask strangers with pups if I can pet their dog, this July I volunteered at the Exploration Center & Aquarium and got to ask the staff: “can I pet your quahog?”
The Exploration Center & Aquarium has three (count ‘em, three!) touch tanks. Visitors are greeted by a large, low tank filled with critters found on Rhode Island’s rocky shores—think snails, sea urchins, and crabs. Around the corner, you can get up close and personal with skates and horseshoe crabs in a second tank and oft-maligned sharks in a third.
I spent much of my volunteer day at the touch tanks answering questions about the Bay’s residents—and encouraging visitors to expand their definitions of a pettable animal. Physically interacting with the animals also proved a great opening to talking about biology and habitats.
Pet a skate? Check out what the embryos look like in a neighboring tank.
Hold a horseshoe crab? You can find them right off the beaches of Newport.
Even better than petting my first silky smooth dogfish shark at the aquarium was watching how visitors interacted with the Bay critters. Upon spotting the live horseshoe crabs, a group of vacationers excitedly solved the mystery of the bizarre shells they found outside their vacation rental. A mom showed her daughter a favorite beach sighting from her childhood, so-called mermaid purses, which are actually skate embryos and we all got to chat about skate development. A group of three swimsuit-clad teens hovered around the rocky shores tank with a mixture of interest and apprehension, until one young woman dove her hand in to show her friends a spider crab.
Aside from the fun of hands-on education, interacting with animals of the Bay builds a personal connection to our state’s greatest natural resource. Instead of the abstract idea of protecting the Bay, visitors see the very animals helped by conservation.
What will your connection be? Will you cradle a spiked sea urchin? Or stroke the squishy and nubby skate? Or maybe sit back and watch someone else navigate a horseshoe crab’s (harmless) swinging tail?