Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Mountain Lion 006
Creative Commons License Jöshua Barnett via Compfight

Today we left Albuquerque for Tucson. It was twelve hours on the bus – to say the least, a long day. We started at 7 AM and reached Tucson after two bus changes. However, the beauty of the scenery made up for all the tiredness I felt. It was so wonderful to see the changes in the terrain from Albuquerque.

As we came down from Albuquerque it was really exciting to see the variations in the landscape. As we came to Las Cruses it was much flatter country with millions of desert bushes along the way, occasionally dotted by groups of grazing cattle. One delightful scene was of a group of cattle grazing, while others rested around a watering hole. I was so sorry Dan did not photograph that. Then as we moved to Arizona we saw some of those gorgeous red rocks, jaggedly etched by time- the type I have seen photographed by Joseph Meunch of Arizona Highway magazine, and then as we neared Tucson we passed through Texas Canyon! All I can say is WOW! Such wonderful formations of rocks – huge massive boulders standing alone or in massive groups of rocks! They became a huge mosaic – hard to explain, but impossible o forget. It passed all too quickly from the landscape but not from my memory.

At 6:00PM we entered Tucson – a lovely open town surrounded by mountains. Our motel has a pool surrounded by large pineapple palms that I so adore. How inviting is this city!

The Arizona-Senora Dessert Museum is fourteen miles outside of the city. There are Grayline tours taking people there as part of a tour, but other than that there is no way to go other than by car. We had met a lovely lady on our tour in Santa Fe who told us she lives in Tucson, is now retired, and said she would love to take us to the museum and would show us around Tucson. I had mixed feelings about her offer. I was grateful for the gesture. On the other hand I had really come to speak to the director of the museum. How could that be handled if someone took us up? Where would she stay while we were talking to the staff? Nevertheless I did try to call her when we got to town, and believe it or not the problem was solved. Her phone was out of order and the telephone company said they would report it.

My dilemma was now solved. For ages I had wanted to rent a car – just to go through the routine. It seems so silly to write that today because renting a car is commonplace today. Believe it or not, it was not so in 1978, and the fact is I did not know anyone at that time who had rented a car. I realize as I write this to rent a car one had to have a credit card. Believe It or not, because I was a woman I could not get a credit card until a few months before. It was not available to women – only to the husband!!

We rented a Ford Fairlane –a very small car. I had for years been driving a large station wagon. I could not believe how easy it was to drive a small car.

The road to the museum is one that I will never forget. I have seen many California deserts and really they are hardly very beautiful – very dry – arid- and not that inviting. This was so different. This is high desert and the quantities of desert plants – spiked with multitudinous quantities of saguaros (huge cacti-some over forty feet tall) was so breathtaking that It was almost impossible to drive. All I wanted to do was stop and look.

When we got to the museum it was about 10:30AM and we asked to speak to someone in administration. We were introduced to Maxine Pierce. She was a former docent who now is a paid employee in education. She had given 3,000 hours to the docent program as a volunteer. She was a lovely lady and apparently was impressed with us, because we were with her until after 2:00 PM.

She told us that the museum had gone through a terrible upheaval a few months before. At first all of the docents quit and then the majority of the curators, because of terrific disagreements with the director of the zoo, who himself was eventually fired. It seemed for a while, she said, that there would be no museum, but finally although they still have no director and no curators, they do have acting curators and they have received over 60 applications (many from the California State Department because of Proposition 13 who would like to work there) so she feels it is just a matter of time before the programs are again on their feet. The museum does a lot in education.

In 1971, Doris Ready, a former school teacher, was hired to set up a docent program. It has been extremely successful and has been used as a model by many zoos around the world. Anyone from the age of 19 – to 70 or older is accepted. They have to take 45 hours of training –three hours a session for fifteen weeks (once a week) exams and a diploma is issued at the end. Once a month advanced classes are given and the docent must take five of the nine classes in order to remain a docent. They give a minimum of 16 hours per month which includes travel time and attendance at monthly advanced classes. They go into the schools with a van that has audio visual equipment and they also bring generally a live tarantula, gopher snake and a pocket mouse that children can touch and experience.

The classes are informational and are two hours and fifteen minutes long. Questions and participation of the students is encouraged. There are of course many tours on the museum grounds. They also work with high schools and adult programs. They have a one week class in the summer (Monday through Friday ) -one half of each day. They allow sixteen students per class. Some are pre-school and kindergarten and some are for 4th -6th grade. It is always a first come first serve basis , but because of the fact that there is no transportation to the museum it really depends on the parents willingness to bring the children for the sessions.

Lars Hammar via Compfight

In the van program they also have stereoscopic microphones thus enabling the children to study the skin of a snake, a tarantula’s leg or whatever in detail. The docents set the microscopes for the children. The main importance of the whole program is to teach ecological balance – the energy chain and the food chain. Many docents become responsible for his or her own animals and can bring that creature along for the session.

This museum is special in the fact that the only plants and wildlife displayed come from Arizona and Sonora –thus building a knowledge and appreciation of the world around the children. Maxine said that other projects are formed in Mojave (a rattlesnake project) and others to make the general public conscious of the immediate world around them. Until this great upheaval at the zoo they had many curators – a curator of education, two curators of earth sciences, a curator of environmental education, a curator of birds and mammals, a curator of fish and reptiles, a curator of plants, and a curator of exhibitions. Most are gone now, but hopefully they will be replaced. Three of those who left opened up their own business with plants being they wanted to remain in the Tucson area.

They also give teacher workshops in environmental education. The museum had a program of internship tied in with the colleges and universities. This course is in museum science – a school of renewable resources and environmental education. The intern could be an undergraduate or in a graduate program. It is one semester. They spend all day at the zoo. They pay their own expenses. It is an 8 hour day and the museum is trying to arrange some remuneration to make it easier for the interns to handle the financial problems.

At the moment the museum has over 180 docents. We left Maxine who asked us to sign the guest book. She was a lovely lady who was very generous with her time. She is married to a geologist. After our interview we went into the museum. It certainly is unique – not only in the fact that it is set in a desert, but also that the plants and earth sciences are of equal importance to the animals. They had an entire exhibit on the evaporation of water and how it is so vital to our lives. It was so excellent that I think it takes many return visits to the museum to fully absorb all that it says. They have several exhibits that to me were outstanding in their display. One was of four cats (margay, ocelot, jacaranda and bobcat). Each could be seen from three viewpoints. Outside- underneath in a cave type atmosphere and when you pressed a button, the hiding areas of the animals appeared. It was the same display but how different it appeared when seen the three different ways.

I'm So Pretty!
Creative Commons License Pete Toscano via Compfight

They have an exhibit of river otters that I will never forget. These little characters are so adorable and so playful that you could spend your entire day watching them. Besides swimming and diving by themselves they practically danced together – wrestled and acted like two kids and when they disappeared I found them when I pressed the button which lit up their hiding place. There they were asleep lying next to each other – each facing the opposite way but bodies touching- so wonderful to see. There were many small birds and animals and a delightful prairie dog colony – also a beaver living with a lot of fish . Outstanding also was the building called “Saguaro Ramada” giving a history of this huge desert plant which grows to 40 – 50 feet from a tiny seed. It can reach two tons in weight and can live from 150 to 200 years. There was so much to learn from this museum. If I lived here I would visit it often. Again the drive back was exceptional . Scenery was so exciting as to be almost beyond description.

I was truly sorry to leave this superb museum, and Tucson itself. It is beautiful city, not crowded which was so inviting. However, we had a schedule that we had to meet and the last zoo I had planned to see was in Phoenix.

Photo by desertdutchman