SIOUX CITY | More than 20 years ago, Kent Martin was on a backpacking trip in the Southern California wilderness with some friends when he spotted a hornet's nest hanging from a tree.
"I just had to have it. I threw a rock at it to make sure that it wasn't occupied. Nobody flew out," the West High School biology teacher said of the fragile nest, which now hangs from his eclectic classroom's ceiling along with colorful paper strands of DNA.
Martin carried the nest for more than three days. It's one of many unique finds in his biology classroom, which he refers to as his "home away from home."
"I just find weird stuff," said Martin, whom elementary school teachers often call upon to supply turkey feathers for their Thanksgiving lessons and pretty much anything else animal-related they might need or want.
A giant pair of elk antlers setting on a counter at the back of the expansive room were a Christmas present from Martin's brother who lives in Colorado. He also gave Martin the wild boar mount that flanks the door. Hall passes depicting Martin as Superman, his favorite superhero, dangle from the black boar's jaws.
Perched against a back wall is an enormous set of jaws from a sperm whale that Martin said he found at the school. He also has ostrich eggs, a woolly mammoth's tooth and a coyote fur hat that one of his students made. He grabbed the hat that was resting on the corner of a flat screen TV and gladly placed it on top of his head.
"If Petco has it, we pretty much have it alive or dead," chuckled Martin, who likens himself to Dr. Dolittle. "We have pond water. We have turtles. We have fish. We have bearded dragons. We have tarantulas."
The freshmen students raise baby mice, which are then fed to "Fluffy," an albino corn snake who resides in a glass tank in between the sink and a finch enclosure, to illustrate food chains and the circle of life.
Martin, who admitted he's not a big fan of snakes, purchases food and other supplies for his class's live creatures, while the students clean the fish tanks and cages.
"They're very respectful of the animals," Martin said, while parakeets chirped and fish tanks bubbled. "They know that if the snake hasn't eaten for a while, you don't touch it."
Last year, when one of the high school's star basketball players went off to college and learned his pet bearded dragon couldn't live in his dorm room, Martin offered to give "Ralph" a home. Today, the lizard is content resting underneath a heat lamp in his enclosure.
At a recent faculty meeting, a school secretary handed Martin a box of hot chocolate mix. Inside that box was a parakeet.
"People just hear, 'Oh, that Martin guy up at West High, he'll take it,'" he said.
Martin has a lot things on his walls, ranging from art created by students to snake skins and Superman memorabilia, including a lunchbox and caped pencil holder. His office, which adjoins the classroom, is dedicated to his alma mater, Iowa State. A vintage Cyclones jersey hangs from the ceiling.
Martin got his start as an elementary school teacher. He has been at West High School teaching biology, which he absolutely loves, for 11 years.
"I was an elementary teacher, so that's probably why I have a lot of stuff on my walls," he said. "Kindergarten teachers have a tendency to put up a lot."
Martin's move to a new science wing three years ago gave him more space to display his many collections.
"A lot of these kids don't have a lot of access to what I teach, what I show and what I talk to them about," he said. "How many people are going to be able to touch a bobcat?" A bobcat hide that is.
Although Martin has had live animals in his classrooms throughout his teaching career, he said announcing the passing of a beloved pet is easier with a classroom full of teenagers than kindergartners. "Steve from Accounting," a Platy that lived in a fish tank on Martin's desk, recently passed away.
"When I taught kindergartners and the classroom fish died, we had to have counseling," he said. "We don't have elaborate funerals. The kids get attached to them, but it's not emotional."