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for people who care about the West

Strange little museums and zoos enliven the region


British Columbia
As you wander the West, keep an eye out for the tiniest, quirkiest museums and zoos tucked in unexpected and obscure spaces. They often provide outsized amusement and – fair to say – unrivaled learning experiences. You can see, for instance, "Canada's largest ant farm," along with hulking tarantulas, Malaysian rainbow frog beetles and dragon-headed crickets, Madagascaran hissing cockroaches, Peruvian doodlebugs and giant Caribbean grasshoppers, in the Victoria Bug Zoo, a condo-sized space in downtown Victoria on the southern tip of British Columbia's Vancouver Island. Along with dozens of other creepy-crawlers, they can be viewed alive and in action, not pinned to a mounting board. "It's a pretty unique experience," says Carol Maier, the entomologist who opened the "mini-zoo" in 1997 and still gets a kick out of running it. Tourists who are not squeamish can actually touch, and hold, a tarantula or a scorpion or a praying mantis or a hissing cockroach; some even experience the joy of allowing a giant African millipede to crawl on their faces. (See the photo below.) "I think bugs have gotten a bad rap," Maier says. "People come in here and go through a magical transformation – from Yuck! to Wow!" The ant farm consists of two colonies of leaf-cutters crawling around the walls in clear plastic tubes; you can watch them cutting leaves in two "foraging tanks" and raising their young (each queen lays up to 150 eggs per day) in the dozens of glass cubes that provide their habitat. If that makes you hungry, check out the snacks in the gift shop: chocolate-covered (dead) bugs and barbecued larvets (mealworms in two flavors: bacon and cheddar or sour cream and onion).

California writer Brittany Shoot recommends the World Famous Crochet Museum – a 5-by-8-foot plastic green kiosk that's part of the kind-of-random "Art Queen Compound," near the northern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Shari Elf, the artist who escaped L.A. to run the crochet museum and the rest of the compound, told Shoot, "I added 'world famous' as an affirmation that crochet, and the craft-work of loving hands, deserve to be world famous." The dirt-and gravel lot is also home to an art gallery, and a variety of outdoor tables, metal rockers and oddball art projects. The museum itself used to be a Fotomat kiosk. There's no admission fee and no set hours; if the key is in the lock, you can let yourself in. It's so small, only two people can be inside at the same time. The eccentric Elf doesn't actually crochet; she merely displays her collection of others' creations – mostly animals and dolls, including tattered Sesame Street and Winnie the Pooh characters, well-worn alligators with googly eyes, and tiny crocheted angels with magnets affixed to their backs. It looks like a child's well-loved collection. The museum provides no history or how-to lessons regarding crochet, and there are no fancy doilies and lace, just the folksy, finished products. Visitors are welcome to add their own handicrafts to the collection.

Barbara Lee, an Oregon writer who often winters in Yellowstone National Park, recommends the Track Education Center, which occupies a house in a park gateway town, Gardiner, Mont. Lee calls it "a wildlife tracker's dream: over 1,000 plaster casts of mammal, amphibian, reptile and bird footprints," and specimens including "skulls, fur, scat, hair, teeth, antlers and horns." James Halfpenny, a wildlife biologist, book author, teacher and expert tracker, runs the Track Education Center. He keeps it "stuffed with reference charts, photos and projects related to the study of wildlife and their sign – the clues or bits of information left by creatures in the wild," Lee reports. He also teaches classes; if you sign up for any of them (www.tracknature.com), you can visit the Center, which is also available for rent by research or educational groups. And it is periodically open to the public for free presentations on topics including wolf observation, tracking adventures, and updates on the impact of global warming on local flora and fauna. If you're simply a roaming tourist, contact Halfpenny to see if you can arrange a private visit.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Mont. Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected].