Alligator keeper and salamander seeker

December 18, 2012

When we put out the call for photos to go along with our forthcoming salamander feature by David Rains Wallace, I wasn’t sure what to expect. How many local salamander and newt photos could possibly be out there?

Quite  a few, as it happens: I received nearly 300 submissions for the story.

Pacific giant salamander, by Brian Freiermuth
Pacific giant salamander, by Brian Freiermuth

Some of the best came from Brian Freiermuth, who took the photo of a Pacific giant salamander that we used as our opening image on the story.

Freiermuth turns out not to be simply a photographer who happened to see a salamander. He’s an animal keeper at the California Academy of Science’s aquarium, where he’s the lead caretaker of Claude the albino alligator. And he went to high school at a zoo.

That’s right, he actually went to high school at the Cincinnati Zoo. “There’s an animal program called animal conservation and care for junior and senior year,” he explains. At the time, there was only one other similar program in the country. In addition to standard classroom time, students spent half the day working in different areas of the zoo.

So he knew early on that he wanted to work with animals, particularly amphibians and reptiles: “My first memory is of a turtle. My father brought home a box turtle when I was five years old. I remember looking at the turtle and being enamored of it. It was dinnertime, so my dad turned over the turtle and said, ‘It’ll be here when we come back.’ Well, it flipped itself over and we never saw it again. But I’ve loved turtles ever since then.”

These days, Freiermuth doesn’t encourage people to release pet store turtles into the wild, but he does like seeing kids’ encounters with the animals at the Academy of Sciences.

“We go through the public floor pretty much all day long. One of the coolest spots in the academy for kids is the big California coast tank, and there are big orange rockfish that hang out there. It’s common to see a two- or three- year-old child with his hand up against the glass, with the fish looking back with these huge googly eyes. You see a sense of awe there that’s similar to what I felt seeing that turtle.”

“And of course people love Claude the albino alligator.”

See much more of Freiermuth’s work at insituexsitu.com.

About the Author

Dan was editor of Bay Nature from 2004 until 2013, when he left to work for SF-based Stamen Design. He is now executive director of GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit mapmaking organization. A onetime professional cabinetmaker, he considers himself a lifelong maker of things and teller of stories. Dan has been working at the intersection of journalism and technology since, at age 16, he began learning reporting, page layout, and database design. His enduring interest in environmental issues crystallized into a career path in 1998 when he assisted former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in a cross-disciplinary nature writing and ecology course at UC Berkeley, from which Dan received a Masters in English literature. In 1999, he became Associate Editor of Terrain, the erstwhile quarterly magazine of Berkeley's Ecology Center. In addition to editing and art-directing Bay Nature magazine, he was also Bay Nature’s chief technology strategist, fixer of broken things, and designer of databases and fancy spreadsheets. And he was even known to leave the office and actually hike outdoors.