Animal Encounters at local museum continues to entertain children

Photo by Lindsay Cox | Jenny Gleason, psychology professor at Parkland, shows a lizard to children at the Orpheum Children’s Museum.

Photo by Lindsay Cox |
Jenny Gleason, psychology professor at Parkland, shows a lizard to children at the Orpheum Children’s Museum.

Greg Gancarz

Staff Writer

Animal Encounters is an ongoing program run by the Orpheum Children’s Museum that gives children and their parents the opportunity to get up close and personal with several members of the museum’s animal collection at no additional charge.

“Kids can come up here and take a look at them at any time,” says Jenny Gleason, who coordinates animal encounters in addition to teaching psychology at Parkland.

However, children only get the

chance to view the animals outside their display cases when an animal volunteer hosts an encounter.

Jenny Gleason is one such animal volunteer. She has been volunteering at the Orpheum since fall 2014.

She takes some of the more docile creatures out of their habitats for petting and closer examination by any interested parents and children. Some of the animals are even allowed to walk around and “hunt” prey, usually small insects, to demonstrate their speed, somewhat surprisingly in the case of the ornate box turtle.

While not every child at the encounters is interested in physically petting the available animals, Gleason says all the children are usually very excited to be there.

“The kids get really attached to all the animals,” Gleason says.

The petting and demonstrations usually take anywhere from 15–30 minutes with crowds tending to vary depending on school schedules.

“Often, if it’s a school break, there will be like 20 to 30 people,” Gleason says. “But, usually during a standard week, there will usually be half a dozen kids and their parents.”

Some of the animals on display can be found in local natural surroundings, like relatives of Corny the corn snake and Windy the ornate box turtle, both of which are native to the United States. Other creatures, however, can only be found in places as exotic as Australia, as in the case of the trio of bearded dragons, or South America, the natural habitat of Carmen the chameleon.

The newest additions to the museum include the chameleon, a catfish, and a second tarantula. Many of them are donations to the museum from members of the community.

Gleason is in charge of the Animal Encounters. She first served as the Animal Encounters coordinator before assuming the role of education coordinator at the Orpheum for a year-and-a-half.

“After leaving that position, I decided to transition back to animal volunteering,” she says.

She says her favorite aspect of volunteering at the museum is the children.

“I love the kids’ reactions,” Gleason states. “Just when they pet an animal for the first time, they get so delighted and it’s really fun to see.”

The job can be stressful as well, she says, especially when it comes to the animals’ health.

“We haven’t had it happen around here in a long time but our animals are aging and so they always die,” Gleason says. “For me, that’s really hard.”

When the animals’ health does start to deteriorate, she says it’s also the museum’s responsibility to make the difficult decisions regarding their healthcare treatment.

Gleason says it’s convenient that most of the creatures can be kept as pets. If parents do consider getting their own lizards or turtles as family pets, she says it’s easy for them to get more information from the volunteer.

The Orpheum Children’s Museum is located at 346 N. Neil St. in Champaign and is open to the public from 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. Tuesday–Friday. It opens at 1:00 p.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Animal Encounters are held on Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:00 a.m. More information about the museum can be found on its website,, or by calling 217-352-5895.

Admission is free for kids under two years old, $5 for older children and adults, and $4 for seniors.