Natural wonders: Belchertown woman combines passion for animals with love of education

Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rae Griffiths is what you might call a “teacherpreneur” whose business is making presentations, mostly for young people, using live animals to unlock curiosity and advance learning.

Now, in her 10th year in business as the owner and principal educator of Teaching Creatures, Griffiths has found a niche that fits her passions and suits her skills. She has turned a third of her family’s house into an office that includes a menagerie for the reptiles, mammals and insects that are part of her team. They include an African pygmy hedgehog, a blue-tongued skink, Australian sugar gliders and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Every one of them has its own fascinations.

The cockroaches, for instance, are relatively large and are great for teaching about what makes an insect an insect. “You can see all the body parts, the six legs, the compound eyes, the segmented abdomen. All of those things are really visible,” Griffiths said. “And you can teach wonderful things about adaptation because they hiss.”

From this can follow a discussion about defenses animals develop to survive. The cockroaches are also recyclers because they are part of an ecosystem that circulates nutrients and vitamins from plants.

Griffiths builds themes around specific animals to match the client’s needs.

She brings her creatures to schools, where she integrates her presentation into the curriculum, as well as to birthday parties and, as of recently, to senior centers. She will build programs whose titles suggest a variety of themes: “Amazing Mammals,” “Life Cycles,” “Habitats,” “Burrowing Animals” and “Animals of Spring.”

Her business ran into headwinds during the recession starting in 2008, Griffiths said, largely because grants for presentations like hers dried up.

“Most of my programs at schools are supported by PTOs and they were spending money on paper and pencils, unfortunately, and not on enrichment programs,” she said.

These days, though, the enterprise is getting back on track.

“The last couple of years have definitely started to look up,” she said, though she is still contending with rising fuel costs. She has about 30 animals and most of them live in the largest room in her house, which she keeps at 75 degrees all day and all night. She also drives to all her engagements, which are within an 80-mile radius extending into Vermont and Connecticut.

“The increase in fuel has been huge,” Griffiths said. “I’m trying to balance that with not pricing myself out of being able to bring my program to classrooms and small groups.”

She doesn’t put on what she calls “shows” for large gatherings because she said she does not want to sacrifice the teaching that is possible with small groups. “They really appreciate being able to interact with me and also to be able to really interact with the animal and to see it up close and not from the 40th row of an auditorium,” she said.

Teaching Creatures charges $100 for library presentations. Schools pay between $75 and $145 for a presentation depending on how long it is and how many animals Griffiths brings. Birthday parties are $150. She tacks on a mileage fee for events more than 30 miles from Belchertown.

Griffiths has a degree in zoology from Hampshire College. She has worked as an animal caretaker and educator for a slew of organizations including The Whale Center of New England and Mass Audubon. She completed a graduate program focused on museum education through the Harvard University Extension School in addition to being a certified preschool teacher.

When Griffiths started out she went to a lot of tag sales to buy equipment like cages, terrariums, bowls, lights and animal carriers. Her first animal was a ball python named Terra that she found through the adoption pages of the New England Herpetological Society website. Acquiring animals is not that hard once people know you are looking for them, she said.

“It wasn’t like I walked into a pet store and cleaned them out.” People still offer her animals that she has to turn down. “I’m not a rescue, though I wish I had that capacity,” she said.

Getting the business off the ground in February 2004 was “scary,” Griffiths said. It’s challenging to handle all aspects of the business, from booking and marketing to accounting and teaching.

“I wake up in the morning and I put on my zookeeper hat and do all my animal chores, then sometimes in the middle of that I put on my administrator hat, taking information from a school about what they might be interested in,” she said. “And then of course are the times when I put on my special Teaching Creatures shirt and pack up my animals in the car and go out to do a program.”

She said the payoff is the satisfaction she gets from the work itself. “I am interested in teaching natural history and connecting it to the natural world,” she said. “I do a lot of work with young children. Their wonder and fascination with animals is palpable, and to be able to give them that experience of seeing and touching and asking questions about an animal that they don’t get to see very often is really rewarding.”