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West Valley City Journal

Mystical zookeeping: Engage with real-life dragons and beasties

Mar 22, 2019 12:17PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

We do not have to watch “Game of Thrones” reruns. Meet “Drogo,” the largest species of Tegu lizard, an Argentine black and white species. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

Any Harry Potter fan knows about the importance of caring for magical creatures. In fact, it is a required class for any wizard attending Hogwarts.

But what about the importance of caring for real-world animals, for us muggles?

It is important, and all the more important to learn at a young age.

Such is the belief of West Valley’s Scales and Tails Utah organization. Dubbing itself “a traveling reptile education show” featuring “edutainers” versus the more dowdy “instructors,” the conservation and education nonprofit hosts holiday and weekly summer classes for Salt Lake Valley children, on a variety of topics, among them “Zookeeper Camp: Care of Mystical Creatures.”

When not out “edutaining,” the shop is open to the public six days a week, offering a unique, hands-on, educational experience. “Edutaining” is part educating, part entertaining. It is an unofficial job title, but one employees glom onto and say best describes their unique role within this unique organization.

‘Traveling to a time of witches and wizards to meet creatures from the days of Magic’

City Journals joined them on Presidents Day, with the promise of “Travel[ing] to a time of witches and wizards to meet creatures from the days of Magic.”

Honestly, a reptile hot house does not smell too magical. But the 85-degree temperature inside the hot house? That felt magical on a crisp February day.

With pad and paper in hand, the scene was a case of being surrounded by a room full of muggle zookeepers-in-training, wands often by their side, taking instruction from Scales and Tales edutainers, aided by a table full of mystical tools, ranging from skulls to spell books.

The first animal to appear? A tarantula, or what those reading the Harry Potter series might see as an “acromantula.” Children were united in their lack of fear in being up close with the arachnid, as well as touching the beastie.

The classes offering is for children as young as six and as old as 16. Truthfully, teenagers seem to hold themselves back from fully enjoying the experience. “You’re a teenager,” is an employee’s straightforward reaction to a workshop attendee not seizing the opportunity to pet one of the creatures. Perhaps the regret at missed opportunity will arrive later.

Scales and Tales says ‘mystical,’ they say ‘magical’

“It is a trademark issue,” explained Sarah Stiles, about the “magical” vs. “mystical” naming of the course. Stiles is wearing a non-muggle-esque robe and is brandishing a wand. The glasses are all hers, whether teaching the course or not.

Scales and Tails leverages the concepts of the Harry Potter series to delight and engage children, without entering copyright or trademark infringement. “Muggles may not have magic, but they are useful for something,” she quipped.

Stiles has a rapt audience of a dozen children, watching, listening, learning, as she produces animal after animal. She introduces them to tarantulas, water dragons, bearded dragons and a crowd-pleasing assortment of snakes. 

Although Stiles is new with Scales and Tails Utah, she has worked with animals her whole life and has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and range resources. “My main focus was mammals and birds, with an emphasis in wolf biology, but I have always loved and learned about all the animals and the natural habitats.”

Her background in theater performance and education, makes the opportunity to work with Scales and Tails “a perfect fit.”

They do ‘bend and snap,’ Scales and Tales does ‘bow and flourish’

As part of the Mystical Creatures Zookeeping experience, children learn how to greet a dragon. For anyone who has seen the classic comedy “Legally Blonde,” greeting a dragon is sort of like attracting someone. The movie’s “bend and snap” move is akin to the “bow and flourish” move used to greet a bearded dragon.

Stiles demonstrates the move to the children, and to her most important audience, the Argentine bearded dragon, named “Drogo,” who indicates approval by licking her with his tongue.

The crowd goes wild, and children zip into line to take their turn, bowing and flourishing, often squealing with delight when the bearded dragon greets them back.

Wild at heart, with reluctant domestication

Scales and Tales is an interesting organization. On the one hand, Stiles tells children, “I prefer to see my dragons in the wild – where they belong,” and yet, children are here at the reptile hot house, learning how to care for them as domesticated pets.

“They have to learn how to properly take care of each animal’s particular needs,” Stiles said of her muggle students. Students attending this course as well as others benefit from connecting with the animals through touch, but also through the responsibility of learning about their dietary and other needs, and how to interact with them in domestic and wild situations.

But perhaps the most important part is learning to clean their cages. “Whether creatures are mystical or not, they’re all disgusting!” Stiles joked with the muggle zookeepers.

And, as to the matter of wild or captive, Stiles explained that Scales and Tails is a refuge organization for animals who have either been mistreated or have been illegally imported into the country as part of the exotic pet trade. Crocodiles, Gila monsters, snapping turtles, and many snakes are not only illegal, but can be dangerous.

But just like the onslaught of people charmed by chicks at Easter, then losing interest and ability to care for grown chickens, exotic pet owners become quickly overwhelmed.

“People don’t realize how big and powerful animals can be,” she commented. The result can be illegal dumping of animals, which can then go on to terrorize others or even end up harming ecosystems not accustomed to new predators.

Caring for animals informs children about their own humanity

Courses about crocodiles, Caymans, birds, turtles, and tortoises, she said, teach children respect for animals, which also informs them about their own humanity.

Scales and Tails hosts classes at their West Valley reptile hot house, brings animals to schools and other events, and even hosts themed birthday parties. The mystical creatures theme, a new concept for the group, is popular with audiences.

When asked how what they do is different from programs like at Tracy Aviary, Hogle Zoo or the Living Planet Aquarium, Stiles is thoughtful.

“We’re unique in that we are a fully immersible experience,” she said. “We go out, and they can come to the shop to have hands-on [experience]. You won’t get that experience at the zoo.”