Last week the redhead and I attended a reunion of folks who long ago were members of a kids' science club at the California Academy of Sciences. The name of the science club was the "Student Section", and that's what it was -- a section of San Francisco's great museum and aquarium reserved for secondary school students. It started in the early 1940s and morphed into the Junior Academy with a more structured program in the 1970s.
The Student Section was a unique educational experience. We paid a dollar a year for membership, and were entitled to Saturday field trips in the bay area, and longer camping trips to the mountains and deserts. If you want to get a flavor of what it was like, read this tribute to one of the academy's late scientists
The Academy didn't archive much material about the Student Section, and now the students are all quite mature, if you know what I mean. So we are compiling testimonies of our experiences for the academy's archives.
Here's what I wrote.
I was about 14 years old when my boyhood friend, Javier Penalosa and I mustered the nerve to walk into the Student Section. Our 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Steinberg, mother of nudribranch specialist Joan “Lefty” Steinberg, had urged us to join the Student Section as soon as we reached junior high school age. Mrs. Steinberg had a contagious interest in the natural world, and her Saturday fieldtrips to Moss Beach at low tide were high adventure. She sent us home with crazy parental-guidance-projects, like boiling and toasting acorns to make acorn mush just like Costanoan Indians.
Until that fateful day, however, Javier and I made almost weekly pilgrimages to the Academy, usually on Saturdays. When the weather was good we walked about 40 city blocks through the park; otherwise we took the #5 Fulton Street bus to 8th avenue.
We were in our element wandering through the academy and copying exhibit signs into our notebooks. The North American Hall was the biggest draw. The dioramas were captivating reminders that wildlife was so near and yet beyond our reach.
We also longed to see the academy behind the scenes. There was only one good excuse -- to deliver a pet snake or lizard for “professional sexing”. San Francisco’s vacant lots and “lands end” had an almost endless supply of garter snakes and alligator lizards, but boy and girl naturalists had no way of knowing their pets’ sex.
We made our sexing requests known to the lady at the information desk, who dutifully called Mr. Slevin on the academy phone. Slevin was the curator of amphibians and reptiles and a veteran of the academy’s famous Galapagos tortoise collecting expedition. Though getting on in years, he was indulgent with small boys. Wearing a green visor, he peered through a magnifying glass at the reptilian cloaca, and then pronounced the sex. Oh yes, he also asked us where we got the creatures. That was it. We thanked him, gawked at the specimen bottles on our way out, and considered it a thrilling experience.
Thus my classmate George Green learned that his pet, a San Francisco garter snake named El Capitan was a male. Tragically, El Capitan was guillotined when the vertically sliding glass door of his cage slipped. But this was another excuse to meet the academy’s staff. We sought advice from the academy’s taxidermist, Mr. Frank Tose, who suggested we make a plaster cast. The two halves of the mold failed to separate. El Capitan was hermetically sealed in a block of plaster. It was not the memento mori we were seeking.
On one of our last visits the old curator apparently decided to take a quick power snooze after we had received permission to proceed to his office. We found him in his rattan recliner with open mouth and hands folded over his chest. Our exit was hasty but quiet.
Then came the Student Section years -- a brief, formative, and unforgettable interlude. Field trips to Californian landscapes became a reality. We met other kids with similar interests. An unidentified specimen was a passport to meet the scientific staff and visit the collection. No longer were we just kids off the street.
I dabbled in entomology and botany, but homeotherms were my true love. I became a regular in the Department of Birds and Mammals. The late Robert T. Orr loaned me Museum Special snap traps, and Mrs Schonewald, his assistant instructed me in keeping field notes and a specimen catalogue. Collecting and preparing specimens became an obsession.
My grandparents had a cottage in the Santa Cruz mountains. When I “got wheels” I ran a “mouse trap line” there all summer and plied Route 9 looking for road kill. When the skinning load was too much to handle, I taught some of the local kids how to prepare study skins. We spent the afternoon at the swimming hole, and set traps after dinner.
At the end of summer I delivered a large box of specimens to the academy. Dr. Orr particularly appreciated the kangaroo rats and shrew moles. A mule skull with canine teeth was also a welcome addition – at the time there was only a female skull in the collection. I beamed.
Perhaps as a result, Orr entrusted me with bat bands from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Dave Rentz, Ed Kirschbaum and I spent many a happy Saturday night netting and banding bats in the hay paddock of Fleischhaker zoo’s elephant house. Kirschbaum introduced us to quinine water, the man’s drink.
I visited the academy almost every Friday afternoon during my high school and college years at SF State. Dr. Orr chatted with me cordially and the conversation always ended with the same question: “Well Chris, what specimens are you looking at today? To my answer he would reply: “All right, be sure to close the cases when you are finished.” Mrs. Schonewald, his assistant became a kind of mother and confidante away from home. I followed her about as she did her work, and often met Ray Bandar there, who would check in to examine the state of various macerating skulls. It was a lovely community.
The inevitable upshot of all this was that I decided to be biologist. After getting a bachelors degree in biology at SF State College and two summer expeditions to Mt Orizaba, Mexico, I got married and took a masters degree. Then we traveled east to the University of Maryland for the Ph. D. By then live mammals interested me more than taxonomy, and I did my thesis on comparative ethology of a group of small carnivores. In 1972 I headed to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo for my first job. Two and half years later we moved to the National Zoo’s Conservation & Research Center, in Front Royal, Virginia, where I worked with staff for the next three decades. We developed programs in captive breeding of endangered species, ecological field studies and reproductive physiology, and trained wildlife biology to developing country nationals.
In retirement I entered my second childhood. I am again a boy naturalist, just an old one.