Do you remember seeing an animal presentation growing up as a kid? Maybe they came to visit your school or local library, or maybe a friend’s birthday party had one. They had a variety of fun, interesting animals that you were able to have an up close interaction with any maybe even touch some that you have never seen before. Some might have been creepy crawly and maybe scared you just a little bit, but the presenter ensured you that they didn’t want to hurt you, and told you all the cool adaptations they had and how much good they did for their environment. You had a blast and were talking about it for months with all of your friends, and just maybe it helped spark a love and passion for wildlife that you still have to this day.
Thankfully there are still people doing just that today, and Rachael Wallman is one of them. She is a biologist, educator, mom, and owner of Doodlebugs Animal Adventures. Through Doodlebugs Animal Adventures she is able to give fun, educational animal programs using song, movement, and live animals to nurture curiosity and empathy toward all living creatures. We had the opportunity to sit down and chat (virtually of course) with Rachael to learn more about how she and Doodlebugs got its start, the hardest part about juggling her business, kids, and animals, and how the COVID-19 pandemic almost put an end to her dream job.
Tiana with Wildlife Tree (TA): Hi Rachael. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I would love to begin with how you got our start and knew you wanted to work with wildlife.
Rachael Wallman, Doodlebug Animal Adventures (RW): Hi! Yes thank you so much for reaching out. Wildlife has always just kind of been a part of me. I was raised in the mountains and spent my time exploring outside and finding wildlife all over. We also had lots of animals growing up as a kid and I always loved helping to take care of them and learning all I could. When I would think about what I wanted to do when I grew up I always went between being a singer, actor, and veterinarian. I was really considering becoming a veterinarian for quite some time, but after working and getting experience in the vet field I realized it wasn't what I craved and what I thrived on. I volunteered growing up at wildlife rescues and knew that wildlife and the excitement and beauty that come from wildlife really drove me. I got my degree from Humboldt State University in Wildlife Management and Conservation. While I was there I was also in the theater department and minored in theatre arts, and it helped me a lot. I loved them both and have always been drawn towards having that interaction and making people feel something.
A roommate told me about the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College and after researching it I went through that program and really got the hands on experience, and learned that this is what it's like. The shoveling poop and cleaning grunt work that comes with wildlife care, and I still liked it. After graduating from the EATM program, I was hired at the Wildlife Learning Center and ended up managing there for about 4 years. With them I was able to learn the behind the scenes of learning how to run a small business doing outreach and taking care of wildlife. I worked there until I was about 8 months pregnant with my daughter.
I actually never wanted to run or own my own business. It was never on my radar. After having my kids, I was really thinking about what I wanted to do and how I could combine working and caring for wildlife, but also being an educator and being able to share that passion with others. I wanted to get people excited and engage with people. My friend suggested that I start my own business and at first I was completely against it and knew all the hard work and stress that come with owning your own business. After talking to my old bosses at the Wildlife Learning Center, they were super supportive, and I talked to other classmates and business owners, then everything kind of fell into place. My dream was to always be able to combine my love for theater, wildlife, and have a family. With Doodlebugs Animal Adventures I get all of that and I love it.
TA: What kind of animals do you have? And how many?
RW: I have a good variety including different snakes, a blue tongued skink, legless lizard, giant african millipedes, hissing cockroaches. In total I have about 25 different species of animals. I am a very small company, but how we are able to interact and engage with the audience and kids makes Doodlebugs thrive. You can take a rolly polly and show it to a child who may have seen it a hundred times and turn it into a fun adventure. That's the cool thing that I am able to do. I love being able to be a part of how the animals excite the audience no matter what species they are.
TA: What age groups are your programs geared towards?
RW: I work with all ages. From high school to senior homes, but predominantly the groups I do more are ages 3 to 11. Honestly, going through the EATM program and my other work experience many people understand that preschool and those age groups can be harder to keep their attention with them always wanting to tell stories. I had to really change my way of thinking and teaching to adapt to that age. I use the multiple intelligence theory. I get the kids involved and excited thinking about pretending to be that animal or how the animal makes them feel and what they would do if they had those adaptations. I really get the children to use their whole mind and whole body. Now preschool is one of my favorite ages because I get to play with them and teach them about these amazing creatures.
TA: Yeah I agree. I think that age can be so fun too because they aren’t like older kids who may be worried that acting interested will make them not look cool, they care less about what other people think and are just excited for new things.
RW: Exactly. And even if they get distracted or want to stand up and move around, I never turn that into a negative. Instead I get up with them and we will dance and move around and I think you can take any behavior and embrace them and turn them into a positive that will make the learning experience fun.
TA: Where did most of the animals you have come from?
RW: I have quite a few that are relinquished animals that people couldn't take care of anymore such as my big boa constrictor and chinchilla. Others were given to me by other facilities like my tarantulas, walking sticks, and hissing cockroaches. There are a few that I have gotten from reputable breeders that really wanted to be able to share with people, but the majority are relinquished pets that have a little more special needs. I have always been drawn to animals that had something “wrong” with them or different quirks or injuries. I think being able to share those cases helps show people that animals have things that can go wrong and that happen to them and it can help show them how they can help.
TA: Do you do everything on your own?
RW: Yeah, it is all me. I definitely never have enough hours in the day. It is fun doing it with my kids though. My 8 year old daughter loves to help and feed the tortoise outside and hold animals while they get some sun. Even my younger son loves to clean out the worm bin and bring the bunny back to his hutch. I love being able to have my kids growing up being able to have living organisms that rely on their care, and being invested in that and creating that empathy for living things has been a great experience for me as a mom and as a biologist. But everything else is also done by just me. I do all of the shows, all of the bookings, I do all of the animal care and training, and social media. It is a lot of work, but it is also something that is rewarding. Everyone wants to do something that they believe in and they feel like it is better for the world, and I am lucky enough to have a job that does that. It is all worth it.
TA: I can only imagine how much that can all be. What is the hardest part of your job, and what is the best part of your job?
RW: The best part is getting to interact with the kids. Seeing their eyes light up and the excitement that they get and being able to watch it grow and thrive is hands down the best part of my job. That is why I am here and why I do Doodlebugs. The hardest part would be running the business honestly. There's just so much to do and I second guess myself a lot if I really am doing the best I can, and asking myself if I am succeeding. But then I do a show and I know I am where I'm supposed to be.
TA: How has the pandemic been on you and your business?
RW: It has changed my business 100%. Doodlebugs thrived on the fact that it was a hands on experience. Most of my animals the kids can touch safely. And it is still in its infancy. I only started in 2018. I was just starting to grow and thrive. I got all these bookings and it was going to be a great summer, and then Covid hit. I am also Type 1 Diabetic, and I had to turn some clients away because I didn’t feel safe. I really thought that was going to be it. That Doodlebug was over. Then I started watching my kids do their Zoom meetings and I thought maybe I could do this. So I offered to some of the teachers who had to have their shows canceled because of everything to do a virtual program over Zoom, and they were ecstatic. I started to do free programs, and then I got more and more inquiries and had to start charging because I was now doing them almost 5 days a week while still trying to homeschool my own children.
The pandemic has completely changed how I teach because I am no longer relying on that tactile aspect. However, now I am reaching more of a global audience and am able to teach students through Outschool and all over the world, which has been great. (Teachers link for Outschool here) It is different for someone like me who thrives on that live aspect, but I do it to where I can still see them at home, get excited and have fun and do the songs and dances with me. I am very fortunate that Doodlebugs didn't have to close.
TA: Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years?
RW: Hopefully doing live shows again. I am actually really content with where I am at now. I don’t have the desire to grow super big. I want to still be able to inspire children and reach out to kids and watch the curiosity grow. I would love to take on some interns and help them grow and learn and find their way, but I don’t want my company to become so big that I am not able to be involved like I am now.
TA: Okay my last question is my fun one to see how you see yourself. If you were an animal, what kind of animal do you think you would be that would fit your personality?
RW: I have worked with so many different animals over my career and experience, but hands down, 100% I would be a dog. I love to play, I love children. I wouldn't want to be a wild animal that couldn't be around people. I would most definitely want everybody to love and cuddle me and be part of the family and pack. Probably a golden retriever because they are derpy, but I would for sure be a dog.
TA: I love that so much and can totally see that. Is there anything else you would like to share?
RW: I am so fortunate to be able to do something where I get to engage and make people feel something. I get so excited for my colleagues that are out there doing research and amazing work in the field, but I am so thankful for what I do and if I can create a future generation of wildlife biologists and people that want to help the planet, I am happy. I always end my shows with “the best way to help the animals, is to stay curious.” A curious mind could change the world.
We know she is doing that. Even thinking back on what inspired many of us at Wildlife Tree, we can still remember the animal shows that came to the schools and sparked our interest and curiosity in animals. Now you can get that at home too. Check out Rachael’s ZOOM-fari Virtual Animal Presentation, where you can explore animal homes, adaptations, animal coverings, and how we all can help animals, from your office, living room, library, or classrooms worldwide. Learn more about all the amazing presentations Doodlebugs Animal Adventures has to offer here. You can also listen to some amazing stories and meet some fun animal friends on the Doodlebugs Animal Adventures YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. May we all continue to learn and grow and want to support a world where all things can thrive, and of course always, stay curious.