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When dozens of creatures wait in an empty building for you to show up, you know you’re essential.

Among the unheralded individuals who keep a college campus going when no one is around to notice, two SUNY Potsdam students trudge through an echoing Stowell Hall three times a week on a mission: to care for, feed and give companionship to a mottled cadre of turtles, aquarium fish, geckos, bearded dragons and snakes. Delivered to the biology department over many years and varied happenstance, the animals now rely entirely on Amber Rudolph ’20 and Morgan Gregg ’20 for a reminder that, yes, things will get back to normal someday. 

On animal duty, the biology students team up to have each other’s back, because the place can seem a little weird in its emptiness. Otherwise, they’d be alone under the inquiring stare of a hermit crab and a flame hawkfish, which changes color to register its stress.

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“Keeping them social is always good,” Rudolph observed. “Especially the snakes, so they don’t get snippy.”

Humans aren’t the only ones missing contact during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rudolph notices the snakes are decidedly moodier and more withdrawn.

“I feel it’s ever since the pandemic started,” Rudolph said. “There are less people taking care of them and handling them, and they aren’t getting to socialize as much.”

Small wonder. Work that had been shared among 12 to 15 people prior to the pandemic now falls to just three, including Biology Professor Glenn Johnson, who oversees the effort. Rudolph and Gregg have a lot on their plate every time they visit. There are tanks and terrariums to be cleaned, fish to be fed, turtle salads and gecko hors d’oeuvres to be made, and several scaly backs to be stroked just so their owners know someone is out there.

Rudolph is used to staying on the move and doing “a million things.” So life feels like a dream right now — just about all of it, including these surreal treks into a silent building, to creatures that wait for her but can’t speak their need.

“It’s weird to be there,” she said. “But it’s nice to know I’m essential, and the animals need me.”

Article by Bret Yager. Photos by Jason Hunter