Musial brings animal kingdom to Smith Wilkes for FES program



Jeff Musial likes to keep late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon on his toes.

With 24 appearances under his belt on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” Musial takes pleasure in frightening the host with an assortment of especially creepy crawlers.

Aside from putting an alligator in Fallon’s face, Musial has thrown rubber snakes at him and has also had the host open a box containing 20 scorpions, all in the hopes of a good scare — and, of course, a good laugh.

Marking his second stop here at Chautauqua Institution, Musial and his animal-loving company, Nickel City Reptiles & Exotics, will present various mammals, birds and critters at 5 and 7 p.m.  tonight in Smith Wilkes Hall. This performance is part of the Family Entertainment Series.

For Musial, getting to perform on Fallon was a long time coming. He’s known that he’s wanted to work with animals for his entire life.

“I was thinking [of going] to school to be a science teacher,” Musial said, “and be that science teacher with the crazy room full of animals.”

But when that didn’t pan out the way the aspiring educator had planned, he went to college for zoology and animal management, hoping to figure out a way to educate kids about animals, with animals.

His dad had once said that he could be a clown and use animals as his props. This sparked an idea for Musial.

Starting in 1999, Musial started performing and teaching in living rooms. Rather quickly, the animal educator went from birthday parties to corporate events to providing and handling animals for wildlife experts and personalities Jack Hanna and Jeff Corwin.

Musial performed in a “Saturday Night Live” skit this past season. For the sketch, “Bathroom Cobra,” Musial stepped in as Vince Vaughn’s body double when it came to handling the cobra for the parody. During the sketch, anytime the viewers see Vaughn’s legs or back, it’s actually Musial, he said.

And though Musial has made his rounds on television, he always does so with education in mind.

“I’m addicted to animals,” he said. “There’s constantly thoughts in my mind about animals, I’m all about animals all the time. I push what I call ‘educational entertainment.’ ”

One of the reasons Musial thinks he stands out as a teacher is because he likes to joke around with the kids. He said that when he is onstage he becomes a 6-year-old all over again, because he is learning “right there with them.”

Musial also likes to present facts about animals that aren’t in typical wildlife books, details that often inspire a jaw-dropping reaction.

For example, alligators have 3,500 pounds of pressure in their jaws per square inch — when an alligator’s jaw comes down, it’s like a heavy piece of machinery, he said. But when alligators try to open their mouths, there is no pressure; their mouths can be held together with a thumb and an index finger, or a piece of Scotch tape.

The collection of animals that Musial has amassed — somewhere around 100 — all come from educators, breeders or zoos. The animals are often given to Musial because they were raised by humans and were living in captivity, making it hard for the creatures to survive in the wild. Musial said that because people raised the animals, it makes them better suited for audiences.

Musical calls his animals “animal ambassadors.” These representatives are not only meant to provide knowledge about their species, but also to inspire a passion for preserving its kind.

“People care about what they know and what they learn,” he said, “[and] then they want to learn to preserve it.”

Helping to preserve animals is a mission of Musial’s, and it also allows him to keep doing the job that he’s incredible passionate about.

“When I was kid, there was nothing better than running through the woods and finding animals and exploring nature,” he said. “It makes me feel good, because I feel like I’m bringing people back to that natural world.”