The Nature Report: “She is the Devil”- Emma and other former greenhouse pets

Courtesy of Nicholas Tillinghast

I’ve been curious for a good while about the animals that were at the greenhouse before the beloved OB, the cockatiel and the recently passed lovebird Mel. This week on the Nature Report, I interviewed my boss, Jason Scism, about the past 18 years of pet birds, snakes, fish, turtles and everything in between. 

There have been many birds kept at the greenhouse over the years—from cockatiels to zebra finches. At one point, the greenhouse even had a beautiful green parrot, lovingly named Emma. Scism recounted their history: “Emma ended up being very vile. She wanted nothing to do with anybody.” Despite this aversion, Emma would become close with two special people.George, one of the grounds staff members and certified parrot fan, was first. “George, after very many months of getting torn apart—his hand, his nose—he finally developed a relationship with her. He would come up here and spend breaks with her and spend lunch with her…eventually she would kind of let him pet her and he would put his hand in and she would come out and sit on him for a while,” Scism said. 

Emma also managed to find a place in Scism’s family.  “I was taking [the birds] home over winter break because we were gone for two weeks… at that point I was still living with my mother and she ended up developing a relationship with the bird. She still has her,” Scism explained. Emma has stayed with Scism’s mother for the last eight years. 

Despite Emma’s family ties, there’s still quite a bit of friction there. “Whenever she wants to be petted, she’ll make her little weird sounds and my mother will pet her and her eyes dilate,” Scism said. “She’s the devil, basically it’s just pure evil… she’ll sit there and scream at me if I don’t come over to say hi to her whenever I go there.”  

 Birds aside, Scism has a 55 gallon fish tank in his office with many brightly colored fish. Before it had fish in it though, the tank was home to a snake Scism found on a chilly November day, most likely released by a pet owner. “It was a ball python… obviously pythons aren’t native to New York so it was actually over at Dutchess Community College… there’s a lake with a waterfall and we just happened to go there one day and there was a ball python, all balled, coiled up on the ground.” Scism brought the snake to a few reptile rehabilitators without any luck and ended up keeping the snake for the greenhouse. One day, after being taken out of the tank, someone left off the lid of the tank, and the snake found a way to slither out. “We could not find the thing anywhere… four or five months later we started to smell something and I thought it was just a mouse. I couldn’t really locate where the smell was coming from and then one day I finally found it and it ended up being the snake that got stuck in some sort of a little enclosure downstairs in the basement.” 

Courtesy of Nicholas Tillinghast

After the snake died, a turtle arrived, affectionately named Fluffy. How a turtle ended at the greenhouse though is a bit of an ordeal. The story goes that one of Scism’s pet snakes at his home somehow got out of the enclosure and ate Scism’s pet ferret. “He was my baby. I loved that thing to pieces.” Scism brought all three of his snakes back to the pet store shortly thereafter, and traded them in for a Russian Tortoise (which is apparently something you could do). Fluffy was an excellent turtle. “We used to go around campus and get dandelion greens for him and give him a bath and all kinds of stuff. He was a pretty cool guy.” Fluffy stayed at the greenhouse for a few years before finding his way into a home. He passed away only a few years ago, having lived a simple, unproblematic life. Much respect to Fluffy. 

Lastly, I learned that the greenhouse has a bird cemetery. Pepper, Sam, Bo and most recently Mel are buried in the ground between the greenhouse and the music hall. If you’ve been meaning to pay your respects to Mel, this would be the place to do it. My assumption is Emma will not be buried there (if she ever dies). 

Courtesy of Nicholas Tillinghast

I didn’t have a lot of pets in my house growing up. We had a pair of cats for a few years when I was younger and a few fish (mine were all named Nemo). Pet birds to me are still foreign territory, but I think I’m coming around; although they are very weird, loud and shifty creatures, they still make for solid pets. I also learned that turtles are excellent pets and are very underrated. Finally, I learned that you gotta keep your eyes glued on pet snakes or else they might eat a ferret or possibly die in your basement. Maybe just avoid snakes altogether.


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