Assistant curator at Fort Worth museum cares for living specimens

FORT WORTH -- Beyond the fossilized dinosaurs, past the stuffed birds and mammals, toward the back of the north wing of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Leishawn Spotted Bear cares for a menagerie of living critters.

"While I was in college, it never crossed my mind that I'd work in a museum," she said. "I started here as a volunteer 20 years ago while I was a student at Richland High School."

The museum offered Spotted Bear a part-time job during her first summer at Texas Wesleyan University. Since then, she has handled jobs from ticket seller to Omni Theater projectionist to volunteer coordinator. But she finally settled into one the science department's least-known niches.

It may surprise people who are familiar with some of the museum's 10,000 nonliving specimens to discover that its collection includes about 70 breathing animals. They're brought out most often for kids in a pair of two-hour daily sessions designed for very young scientists, said museum spokesman Philip Gonzalez.

"It's essential to the learning environment we provide, especially for children who attend the Museum School that runs pretty much like a regular preschool setting," he said. "My daughter and son came to the schools and that was one of the highlights, to see and touch the live animals."

The secret of successfully showing animals to children is to give the young humans control over when, how much and even whether they touch them, Spotted Bear said.

"It makes them more comfortable if we can keep them separate when we take [the animals] out," she said.

That's especially important the first time someone gets close to an animal they're afraid of, like a snake, or something that just disgusts them, like a giant hissing cockroach, said Shannon Collins, Museum School director.

"Early teaching with our artifacts and animals stimulates a love of nature that blossoms from this point throughout their lives," she said. "We want children to appreciate nature. Instead of stepping on every bug they see, to set it off the sidewalk and let it live."

It would be hard to find anyone better than Spotted Bear at helping people get beyond their fear of animals, Gonzalez said.

As assistant curator, the 39-year-old of Native-American descent oversees the museum's live and preserved collections. She's half Mandan (her father, Justin Spotted Bear, was born in North Dakota) and a quarter Choctaw (her Oklahoma-born mother, Anna Weatherford, is half Choctaw).

"The remainder is mostly Irish," she said.

The larger percentage of Spotted Bear's job is acquiring and preparing specimens and bringing live and preserved animals into museum classrooms and natural-history programs. But she also performs at events like Family Science Night and Polar Express parties and in the museum's TV studio for the distance learning program.

That's when the teacher comes out. In the early 1990s, Spotted Bear specialized in life and earth sciences at Texas Wesleyan University, earning a bachelor's degree in human learning and development and a certificate to teach first through eighth grades.

But the museum position became her dream job. She gets to teach, which she loves; work with kids, which she really loves; and spend her days with the museum's animals, which she loves more than anything.

"Probably half of them have names," she said.

Providing the real names of live snakes, spiders and other animals when people bring them in is also part of the job, Spotted Bear said. So is providing them a home if needed.

"We got a call from someone who had six spotted ground squirrels and we're like 'OK, we'll take a couple,' and they said 'No, you have to take them all,'" she said

Many animals brought to the museum come from people who tried to raise them, but found that they couldn't, Spotted Bear said.

"They're animals that imprinted on people and can't be returned to the wild," she said.

One such animal was a bobcat named Rufus, which was brought in by a rehabilitator, Spotted Bear said.

"The man had retrained Rufus to hunt in the wild, but he couldn't break him of wanting to play with people," she said.

Rufus liked to climb people's bodies and sit on their shoulders to be petted, Spotted Bear said.

"If he'd been released, the first time he tried to do that in the wild someone would have killed him," she said. "He lived in our lab for a long time, rubbing against our legs like a house cat. He died five years ago of kidney failure."

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620

Twitter: @fwstevans