The Robot Zoo

Touch Tunnel

The Man Behind Liberty’s Reptiles — Clyde Peeling

Corrections or additions?

This article by Caroline Calogero was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 14,

1999. All rights reserved.

Allures of Liberty Science

The adventure of a trip to a big city museum with

kids begins the minute you step out your front door. First comes the

60-minute car ride plus traffic delays at the bridge or tunnel. This

is followed by a hunt for a parking spot as rare as snowflakes in

July in some urban parts. The walk from the car park to the museum

clutching your offspring’s hand can be a bit tense. And by the time

you’re finally inside, the tykes are crying for lunch.

For New Jersey suburbanites who have lost their taste for such urban

challenges, the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City is an easy to

swallow alternative. Granted, this is not the place to revel in cultural

peripherals. Rolling off the New Jersey Turnpike directly to its ample

parking lot, you can’t soak up colonial history as is possible on

the way to the museum in Philadelphia. There are no skyscrapers to

ogle up close as there are in Manhattan. But for high quality fun

and learning, plus the utmost in convenience, there is no destination

like it.

On an early summer Saturday, the 35-mile trip on the New Jersey Turnpike

from Exit 8A in Jamesburg to Exit 14C in Jersey City took about 40

minutes. Arriving at about 11 a.m., we parked in the fourth closest

parking spot. My four kids, ages 3, 5, 9, and 11, were interested

as soon as they got out of the car and saw the large banner with the

mechanical giraffe head advertising a brand new exhibit, the Robot

Zoo.

Liberty Science Center currently has two touring displays in residence.

"Reptiles: The Beautiful and the Deadly," an exhibit mounted

by Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland of Allenwood, Pennsylvania, runs until

September 6, and "The Robot Zoo," which continues through

January 8, 2000. Also featured this summer is the IMAX feature film,

"Island of the Sharks," and "Brutal Kinship, a photography

exhibit on the chimpanzees.

The kids dragged me kicking and screaming straight down to see the

Robot Zoo. I would have rather spent more time watching the Hoberman

geodesic sphere in the Liberty Science Center’s handsome 90-foot-high

atrium. The Hoberman is 750 pounds of articulated aluminum, which

rhythmically contracts and expands from 4 to 18 feet in diameter,

as it travels up and down along a silver cable.

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The Robot Zoo

But the kids were intrigued by the robot giraffe whose

face filled a flag flapping over the entrance walkway. So down into

the basement we went. The Robot Zoo, an exhibit filled with giant

mechanical models of animals and insects, represents an attempt to

explain the phenomena of natural movement and sensory perception through

computer-assisted mechanics. The kids were very interested, but the

point of it all eluded me. It seemed like an awful lot of lights,

bells, and whistles just to model some bugs.

The robot line-up consisted of a fly, a giant squid, a bat, a platypus,

a rhino, and the head of a giraffe. The children gave the robotic

models just a quick once over, but found some of the accompanying

activities entrancing.

My three-year-old glanced only briefly at the robotic housefly. But,

hands gripping a pair of Velcro covered paddles, she repeatedly tried

to "crawl like a bug" up and down a carpet-covered form shaped

like a couple of sine waves. The activity was designed to simulate

the fly’s ability to climb vertical surfaces.

Near the robot of a giant squid, the kids played a game. Pumping vigorously,

they raced against each other to propel four wall-mounted plastic

squid to the finish line. During the race, I read the display cards

and learned that such squid can live at ocean depths of up to 6,500

feet. Even at weights that reach 1,000 pounds, they remain the tasty

prey of sperm whales.

My husband, later joined by our 9 and 11-year-old, got very involved

in a computer game that redesigned the neural pathways of these same

squid to allow for faster motion. The goal was to cause all the squid’s

neurons to fire simultaneously, expelling sea water from the body

cavity and creating maximum thrust. Unable to get much pleasure from

squid optimization, I went back to reading the fact cards.

On the way back up from the lower level, or certainly on the way out,

thrifty families may want to keep the little ones away from the gift

shop but avail themselves instead of the museum’s souvenir bargain.

Try the machine that flattens a penny while it crushes on an imprint

of an atom and the name, Liberty Science Center. The total cost is

51 cents, which should include the very shiny penny you brought along.

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Touch Tunnel

We spent a lot of time on the second floor where other not-to-be-missed

sights include the Touch Tunnel for children ages 7 and up. It is

impossible to see anything while inside — it is total darkness.

Kids must rely on their other senses as they crawl through.

Grownups and future naturalists should take the time to examine Michael

Nichols’ photography exhibit "Brutal Kinship." The photographer

and animal rights activist worked closely with Dr. Jane Goodall to

document the plight of chimpanzees at the hands of their homo sapien

"cousins."

The Bodies in Motion exhibit interested the entire family as we measured

our grip strength, flexibility, and wheelchair racing talents. It

also allowed would-be strongmen to impress their siblings with these

abilities. A tour through the ambulance and some time sitting at its

steering wheel is a must for the younger kids.

By the time we reached Liberty’s third floor, our appetite for science

facts was almost sated. We paused at the Stream Table, which allows

the very young a chance for some quick water play and older kids a

chance to learn about a river’s effect on topography by moving around

sand. We also all enjoyed watching the fish swim around in shallow

tanks that simulate cross-sections of local aquatic environments.

Certainly this is a destination that satisfied the span of ages in

our family group. With its three floors of exhibits and two movie

theaters, it also comes recommended as a destination for families

of teenagers in general and dating teens in particular.

— Caroline Calogero

Liberty Science Center, Liberty State Park, Jersey City,

201-200-1000. During summer, the Liberty Science Center is open daily

from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission to the exhibit halls only is

$9.50 for adults; $7.50 for children ages 2 to 18, and seniors. Combination

tickets that include the IMAX Dome Theater and 3-D Theater are $15.50

adult; $13.50 children and seniors. College students with ID receive

a $1 discount. Parking in the state-operated lot is $5. For information

call or go to the website: www.lsc.org.

Directions: Take New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 14-B, Liberty State

Park exit, and follow signs to Liberty Science Center.

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The Man Behind Liberty’s Reptiles — Clyde Peeling

Clyde Peeling is the Jane Goodall of the reptile world.

Self educated, he was hooked on the creatures after catching his first

snake at age 12. He opened Reptiland, an accredited zoo, in 1964.

Peeling acknowledges some private zoos cannot tolerate being the little

guys and are really Bronx zoo wannabes. His own aspirations are different.

"My dream has always been to just try to create a nugget. If occasionally

I get criticized because it’s not as big as people thought, so be

it." His 6,500 square foot reptile house, located in rural north-central

Pennsylvania, 13 miles south of Williamsport, contains about 60 species

and 150 specimens.

Peeling’s aim is to educate the public about these perennially vilified

creatures who have symbolized the bad guys for the human imagination

since Eve took a bite of the apple. "They’re such a maligned group.

There are so many misunderstandings about them — especially about

snakes," he says.

Zookeeping handily combines Peeling’s two great interests: show business

and reptiles. "I thought I could blend the two interests so I

could interpret for the public one aspect of science in an entertaining

and informative way. So that’s what I’ve done with my life," he

says. He has given more than 5,000 lectures at Reptiland and at schools

and colleges.

Now Peeling has set up "a self-contained zoo" at Liberty Science

Center, complete with its own imported zookeepers. The miniature zoo

includes a couple of disappointingly small alligators; the poisonous

Gila Monster, a lizard whose biography indicates it eats only a few

meals a year; a soft shelled turtle; and lots of snakes. Cobras, vipers,

and pythons are among those displayed.

The show begins with a glimpse of an ugly alligator snapping turtle

swimming vigorously around his tank. The exhibit then snakes around

(pun definitely intended) past the turtles, gators, lizards, and finally,

the slithery serpents themselves. The creatures are housed individually,

with an occasional pairing of specimens, in clear cases built into

the walls of an island-shaped set made of black Formica. My own kids

took less than 30 minutes to speed through this exhibit, but young

devotees of snakes or lizards, and adults, will probably take longer.

"What we tried to do was to give a fairly even representation

of reptiles from around the world. We attempted to do a blend of high-profile

animals that people have heard of, and some very delicate, beautiful

creatures that not so many people have heard of," says Peeling.

The exhibit is zoologically comprehensive. Peeling has included representatives

of three out of the four orders of reptiles — snakes and lizards,

crocodilians, and turtles. The missing order, tuatara, consists of

just one species that has not been bred in captivity and is found

only on islands off the coasts of New Zealand. About 20 species are

represented in total.

Peeling believes the key to a successful exhibit is properly maintaining

the animals. The ambient temperature is critical but glitzy cases

are not.

"These creatures are not highly intelligent. They don’t require

a lot of cage furniture that say, a mammal, would need." But maintaining

the correct temperature is very important. Peeling judges 85 degrees

Fahrenheit to be the optimal temperature for most of these with some

desert reptiles needing a "hot spot that’s close to 100 degrees."

A high temperature area allows these animals to better thermo-regulate.

The set is embellished with pictures of reptiles by wildlife photographers

Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. The animal service area is located within

the island itself and out of sight of visitors. Case adornments are

simple — some wood chips, tree branches, or fake foliage —

letting the forms of the animals themselves dominate the settings.

Peeling also tries to minimize stresses on his animals. He says that

can often be done by simply providing a place in the display where

the animal feels hidden and thus, safe, from predators and prying

eyes.

The exhibit walls are sprinkled with back-lit graphics explaining

such arcane reptile facts as how the sex of alligators is determined

by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. There are also

lots of learning opportunities with question and answer panels designed

as skulls or photographs. The area is well lit, a far cry from reptile

houses at some zoos where, upon completion of the exhibits, one emerges

from the gloom feeling like a prisoner just released from a term in

the salt mines.

The snakes proved very popular the morning we visited. They are roughly

arranged in order of increasing size and correspondingly, of human

interest. A large peach and beige Burmese python was among the most

riveting. The snake’s unusual color was a result of amelanism, a condition

in which animals lack the dark pigment melanin. In amelanistic animals,

the softer pigments dominate. Such creature are light colored but

are not albinos, and seldom survive in the wild.

When pressed to name a favorite reptile, Peeling draws a blank. But

he gains volubility when asked to explain his interest in reptiles

in general. "I’ve always had an interest in bio-diversity and

how evolution works. I see life as a continuum. They’re sort of cousins

(to us) — more than twice removed."

— Caroline Calogero

Island of the Sharks, Liberty Science Center, Liberty

State Park, Jersey City, 201-200-1000. Admission to the IMAX Dome

Theater only is $8.50 adults; $6.50 children 2 to 18 and seniors.

The film website is at www.pbs.org/nova/cocos


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