Rolling with Reptiles: Sternberg’s ‘Animal Encounters’ offers family fun on the wild side.


The Sternberg Museum of Natural History is located in the heart of Hays. This domed building serves as a hub for activity within the community, both offering events tailored to specific age groups as well as several programs geared towards general education. This summer, the Museum brought a new event to the city. Animal Encounters was formed as an opportunity for education, made into bite-sized pieces for school-age children. The goal of the program was to allow the children to experience animals in a way that teaches understanding rather than fear.

Animal Encounters is held in the Discovery Room in Sternberg. The room itself is made for hands-on learning and exploration. It features several exhibits, most of which focus on reptiles and amphibians. It has several desks, which house pamphlets and books documenting the different types of insect within our region, as well as fossils for kids to examine. There are shells decorating shelves, and pinned butterflies, beetles, and spiders, all waiting to be studied. 

Sternberg remarks this as one of their proudest achievements, as the museum takes delight in providing an area for young minds to truly flourish. On their website, Sternberg describes the room best, stating: “The Discovery Room provides freedom for individuals to formulate and pursue their own questions, as well as suggesting directions of inquiry for subjects or visitors requiring more structure.” It is almost akin to a playground of education, a shining example of keeping learning fun.

“The main reason I started Animal Encounters was because I wanted people to actually experience things like reptiles and amphibians…seeing a snake behind glass, people don’t think they have personalities, or that they really do anything,” said Alicia Gaede.

Gaede is a Naturalist at Sternberg, having taken up her position after graduating from Fort Hays State University, her degree fittingly being in Wildlife Biology. Gaede oversees the Discovery Room and cares for the animals exhibited throughout the room. Gaede started as a volunteer, but when offered her position, enthusiastically took it.  Her office is much like an exhibit itself, eager mice and snakes are active and alive, turtles roam around on the floor. Gaede works most often with children’s programs, however, she also facilitates tours and occasionally birthday parties hosted by the museum.

“My best experience was there was a three-year-old boy and he already knew what he wanted to do by that age. He wanted to be a zookeeper, and he wanted to work with reptiles and amphibians,” said Gaede. “His parents contacted me to have him actually meet the animals..he came in here and he was a pro at handling every animal… that was really wonderful that people reached out to us…that’s how other kids can change their minds about animals.”

Gaede certainly continued that idea when putting together the Animal Encounters program. Kids were closely sitting together, all of them in absolute awe as she and her coworker handled the snakes. She had asked the crowd if there was anyone afraid of the snake still after she had handled it, only the adults raised their hands.

The program itself was structured in a very simple and easy to follow manner. The children would sit, watch the staff handle the snakes and introduce them, then they were able to touch them if they wanted to.

Gaede handled a smaller snake, while her coworker dealt with a much larger snake. The snake going as far as to coil around her head, which brought laughs to the children rather than fear. The kids were questioned on their previous knowledge of the snakes, regarding what they eat, where they can be found, and how to care for them. Humor was sprinkled in for the adult audience in attendance, but most of it was geared towards motivating the kids.

When it finally came time for the petting, the kids all raced to form a line. There were groups of siblings, as well as a preschool class in attendance, all of them waiting for their chance. A few adults also joined in on the fun, following the fearless kids leading the way. 

Once they had all had a chance to meet the snakes the staff allowed for more questions and comments, all while allowing the snakes freedom to roam a controlled area.

Gaede handling a much smaller snake, lovingly named ‘Oreo’

“They learn to identify these things so much earlier on than before. They learn, rather than being scared of them their whole lives. It’s a way to interact with kids that feel the same way about these animals as we do,” said Gaede. “I feel like when you go to the zoo and there’s a petting zoo, you feel like if you’re old enough that you can’t or shouldn’t go there, like [you just] let the kids do that, but it’s so much fun, so I like that this can also let adults come and meet our animals as well.” 

She went on to further explain that the Animal Encounters program has brought in many people, both those from Hays as well as those just passing through. She even remembered a man who came all the way from Georgia specifically for one of the events.

Another handler holding a Bullsnake

Sternberg itself hosts a large variety of events besides the Animal Encounters program. Gaede mentioned that she runs preschool programs every week, and the museum has a very full agenda of events on their website. The museum often holds themed days, the most recent ones being ‘Star Wars Day’, ‘Pokemon Day’, and ‘Harry Potter Day’. All information for this can be found on their website: .

This week marked the end of their Animal Encounters summer program, which met every Friday at 11 am, however, Gaede spoke hopefully about it returning next year for even more opportunities and even more animals.

“This is not just for adults to learn about fossils and what Kansas was like millions of years ago. You can bring your kids and have a good time here, you can get them interested at such a young age…it never fails that if they come once, they want to come again,” she said.

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