Christina Kenny is used to working with unusual creatures as animal curator at the Long Island Children's Museum. But even she was skeeved out when she had to fill a sausage skin with animal blood and feed it to the leeches in the museum's newest exhibit, "Attack of the Bloodsuckers!"
Eight gray, sluglike leeches, each bigger and thicker than a man's finger, were sent to the museum in Garden City in three thermoses as part of the traveling exhibit, which will be at the museum through May 5. The leeches live in a glass tank in the exhibit space. Kenny also got about 600 mosquito eggs from Rutgers University in New Jersey that will hatch throughout the exhibit's stay so visitors can see the insects in the larvae and pupa stages.
Things that make adults go "ew" are also the things that make kids exclaim "cool," say the museum's staff members. "It's the fear factor that fascinates kids," says Maureen Mangan, museum director of communications and marketing. "This exhibit is perfect for schoolchildren in terms of being heavy in science content."
The exhibit is open during museum hours. This weekend, a special event also will take place in the exhibit space. At 3 p.m. Saturday, kids will learn about different species of vampire bats and create a bat craft to take home ($3 extra). That program repeats Feb. 3. Other special events include the Smelling Safari from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 2 and 10, which will let kids drop by a station to sample scents that might attract mosquitoes. (Be warned -- scientists think the bugs are attracted to smelly feet.) The exhibit and its special activities are free with museum admission.
The exhibit itself is packed with colorful, cartoonlike illustrations -- visitors are greeted with a life-size cartoon poster of a woman in a bathing suit lounging in her backyard and listening to an iPod, unaware that a huge silver mosquito with enormous wings and a super-long stinger is about to attack her. A nearby mock of a nutrition label states: "Homosapien blood: The perfect 'takeout' treat."
Blowup photographs magnify mosquitoes, fleas, black flies, deer ticks and other parasites that take food from the bodies of living creatures. Displays offer facts such as this one about the "kissing bug," or Triatoma sanguisuga: "This bug gets its name from its strange behavior of biting people around their mouth while they are sleeping. The kissing bug is a host for parasitic diseases in South America."
The exhibit offers interactive activities such as Twitcher, a play on the game of Twister. Kids whirl a spinner and have to put their hands or feet on the green dog flea, the red head louse, the yellow bedbug or the blue itch mite.
At another station, visitors can push buttons in front of bugs about to be offed by a pink fly swatter or a can of bug spray, and hear them plead their cases, explaining why they have redemptive qualities. "You're making a big mistake," says the leech, who explains that as an inhabitant of lakes, he becomes food for turtles, fish and aquatic birds.
In the "Mosquito Cockpit," visitors pretend they are mosquitoes and learn how the insects track down dinner -- by honing in on victims' exhaled carbon dioxide and their body heat.
By the show's end, kids will have a new understanding of parasites, says museum education director Aimee Terzulli. "They will learn to admire the amazing anatomy and adaptability of the mosquito," she says, "and learn what makes a tick 'tick.' "
INFO Free with museum admission of $12 for adults and children older than 1, $11 for seniors older than 65, free for babies; 516-224-5800; licm.org