Story last updated at 11:49 a.m. Friday, August 2, 2002

Sea lion skeleton next for Pratt kids
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: schools
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
The morning contingent of the Pratt Museum's Summer Adventure Program puts a black bear skeleton into form. They are instructor MIchelle Bayes and Tyler Haas. The group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders started with trays piled with unattached bones four weeks ago. The fully articulated bear skeleton was set to be completed today. Not shown are Sigrid Comann, Hannah Bardley, Sophie Smith.  
When the massive carcass of a Steller sea lion showed up outside the workshop behind the Pratt Museum (See related story, front page), Michelle Bayes had an epiphany.

Bayes, who has been overseeing the eight junior high students in the museum's Summer Adventure Program, saw the sea lion stripped of its flesh and reduced to its skeleton, and Betsy Webb, the museum's collections director, was right there with her.

The idea was not a huge leap for a woman whose group has spent the past four weeks sifting through a pile of bones and reconstructing a skeletal black bear. All of this has been taking place at a museum with a long love affair with skeletal specimens. At 10 feet long, the sea lion will make a nice companion to the museum's smaller sea lion skeleton.

Both Bayes and Webb saw an opportunity for some good hands-on learning for the Pratt's summer student programs.

photo: schools
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
The morning contingent of the Pratt Museum's Summer Adventure Program puts a black bear skeleton into form. The are from left, Sigrid Colemann, Hannah Bradley, Sophie Smith, instructor Michelle Bayes and Tyler Haas.  
The Summer Adventure Program got its start in 1997, when the museum parlayed grant money into a program designed to help the general public and students to learn about science, technology and the environment through hands-on experience. The program was billed as Kachemak Bay Discovery, and each summer it has sponsored, in addition to the Summer Adventure Program, the hiring of high school-aged interns to serve as museum interpreters and mentors to the younger kids.

As a pathologist began opening the animal up, the Kachemak Bay Discovery kids, watched with varying degrees of fascination.

"It's totally disgusting," said seventh-grader Sophie Smith, though Bayes later pointed out that Smith didn't miss a minute of the grisly necropsy.

The current crop of Summer Adventure Program kids expected to mark the end of their eight weeks together with the completion of their black bear by today.

"They're a little bit amazed that these trays of bones have come together," Bayes said. "It looks like a bear now."

The kids are justifiably proud of the accomplishment. When the black bear is unveiled to the public, it will be mounted on a wood stand and will feature a salmon skeleton hanging from its jaws. It will eventually be a part of the Pratt's Stewardship Exhibit, where it will keep company with a brown bear.

"There are 37 bones in the foot," Hannah Bradley said as she held up the bear's leg.

The black bear came to the Pratt in 2000, after it met its demise as a problem bear in Anchorage.

When it arrived, it was frozen. The museum's summer students defrosted it and, with the help of Homer skeleton expert Lee Post, they set about boiling it to get the flesh off the bones.

Not a group for wasting any time, Bayes said that Pratt had set the Summer Adventure Program and Post to work on the sea lion.

High school intern Dylan Anderson was already busy skinning the animal's flipper while it was being necropsied.

"This is the fun part," said Anderson, who was also around when the black bear was skinned. "A lot of people think it's repulsive, but I like it."

The process of taking apart the black bear and now the sea lion is helpful when he stares down a fetal pig in the biology lab, Anderson said.

As an educational tool, the now-complete black bear skeleton spanned three years and involved three generations of Kachemak Bay Discovery kids at the Pratt.

Bayes said the sea lion will be next year's project, and one that might last for a couple of years after that, as well.

Sitting in his office beneath the museum, Mike O'Meara, the museum's director for special projects, marveled at the fact that the Kachemak Bay Discover program would have yet another skeleton to articulate.

The program got its start after Howard Hughes Medical Institute gave the museum a grant that helped fund the project to articulate the skeleton of a sperm whale that had been found on Kenai Peninsula's outer coast in the late 1980s.

O'Meara said, the museum's benefactors were pleased with the type of educational community endeavor that eventually resulted in the sperm whale skeleton hanging in the Homer High School commons. The reputation of that project was leveraged into grants, most notably from the Hughes institute and Toyota USA, that gave birth to Kachemak Bay Discovery.

The funding for the program is up this year, O'Meara said, adding that efforts are under way to shore up new income sources for the program.