Petaluma Wildlife Museum Celebrates 30 Years

Conservation Education at the Petaluma Wildlife Museum

by Jaden Gregorio (he/him)

The Petaluma Wildlife Museum has been busy during this first semester and plans to keep their docents and staff occupied with many more events in the near future.

The Museum Management class, instructed by Philip Tacata, is a special elective at Petaluma High and runs the only high school student-run natural history museum in the nation. Student docents who take the class learn about various subjects ranging from wildlife conservation, conservation biology and resource management to genetics and animal husbandry. In addition, students also spend a lot of time learning how to properly inform the public about conservation through public speaking and broadcasting over social media. Student docent Mia Vaughn, senior, said, “I always loved animals [and] wildlife. I saw that there was a chance to learn a lot more and it’s not something you get to do every day. [Eventually,] I saw that it was something I was passionate about.”

Every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the museum hosts an Open House where student docents lead tours of the living and stuffed animal ambassadors. These tours go through different rooms, such as the Africa, natural sciences, North America, cave and reptile rooms. The museum also offers private tours for schools and the community as well as birthday parties.

A large portion of the program are the Zoo Haul trips the museum makes. Zoo Hauls are trips student docents and staff go on to schools all around Sonoma County to teach either about their Animal Ambassadors’ conservation stories or about the various reptile species housed in the museum. Additionally, they teach younger students how to be more mindful of the environment and spread awareness about the major issues facing our ecosystems.

“It’s a much more intimate version of a tour because we only have five [docents] and a few animals,” said student docent Phoebe Hornstein, senior. “It helped [me] become closer with the people in museum, and it’s more interactive.”

The Petaluma Wildlife Museum spends a lot of time engaging with several conservation-based groups and encourages students to volunteer and expand their knowledge on conservation and animal husbandry. An organization they have been working particularly close with is Classroom Safari, led by Bonnie Cromwell. With this program, students have the opportunity to learn about how to take care of various exotic animals like sloths and servals.

Another organization the museum has recently partnered with is the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade. This group works to rescue red rough-skinned newts that are found crossing roads trying to reach Laguna Lake in Chileno Valley. Students interested in this program have to volunteer outside of school with parental permission and are not endorsed by Tacata because of the potential hazard participating in the roads can be.

The Petaluma Wildlife Museum has held and is holding several community events this first semester. On Halloween, they held their annual Halloween Bash which hosted around 250 kids. Then, on Nov. 12, the museum held their 30th Anniversary Jubilee to celebrate their history and long-lasting impact. Lastly, around early December, they will hold a winter celebration, helped by Classroom Safari, where people can pet sloths.

What keeps the museum going is a constant reminder of the museum’s mission statement: “To inspire the next generation of conservationists through environmental education and practical conservation.”

Tacata is constantly reminded of the widespread impact the program has the ability to create. “I feel a sense of duty to my students that we use these resources that have been given to us by generations past, and really make the most of them. [I want to] inspire kids [and teach them to] understand the science of what’s happening to our world and really give them a sense of hope that there’s something that can be done,” Tacata said.

30 Years of PWM History

by Hannah Schott (she/they)

Ron Head, PHS science teacher and the future founder of the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, got his first look into his potential legacy among conservationists in the summer of 1989. He’d been offered a taxidermy elk head by Hugh Codding, famed Santa Rosa real estate developer and the owner of Codding Museum; what he did not know was that he would be given the entire taxidermy collection if he turned the old bus garage next to the high school into a museum for the animals. After long consideration, Head agreed.

With this new, immense collection of taxidermy, Head realized this plan could actually create something that would benefit the whole community. The Petaluma City Schools District was interested in this and agreed to let him start if he did it all by himself. He was not alone in this however – the Petaluma community came together in a beautiful display of camaraderie to help get the building to where it needed to be.

Finally, in the fall of 1992, the doors opened and from that moment onward, a new generation of conservationists was born, as Head could at last have the platform to teach his students how to live sustainably and protect natural resources beyond their time in high school. The museum continued to grow and develop throughout the years, bringing the community together and setting students up to pursue animal conservation beyond high school.

In the years since the Museum opened, various teachers have lead the course, including Ag teacher Kim Arntz. In 2018, the position was vacated again and Philip Tacata, biology and marine science teacher, took over the class.

Tacata was extremely grateful for the opportunity to further his goal of inspiring young people; “When I was offered the honor of being able to take over the program in 2018, I knew this was a once in a lifetime thing. I’m reminded every day of how special this place is,” said Tacata.

His resolve was put to the test when COVID-19 forced the school to completely shut down. All of a sudden, he and the other volunteers had to keep the entire museum functioning by themselves, with no students doing husbandry and no ways to make money.

There were more barriers than just the virus as well – Cryptosporidium, an incurable disease that affects the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems of reptiles, was spreading through the animals, forcing them to be put down.

“It broke our hearts,” said Abby Frost, class of 2021 alumni and Museum board member. “Not only did people around the world have to quarantine themselves, our animals had to be quarantined.”

Faced with the prospective of euthanizing animals due to a lack of money for testing and operational costs, the Museum ran a GoFundMe campaign that eventually raised over $50,000. Thanks again to the community, the Museum raised enough to actually test every individual animal for the disease and continue to care for the animal ambassadors until the doors could reopen to the public in 2021.

Anniversary Jubilee Goes Wild

by Nora Lounibos (she/her)

The Petaluma Wildlife Museum celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday, Nov. 12. To begin the day of festivities, student docents led ticket-holders on 90-minute tours around the museum to learn about the many animal ambassadors the museum houses.

As the sun set, the dinner and jubilee began. The 5 p.m. event included meet-and-greets with animals, a silent auction and speeches from alumni about memories of the museum. The silent auction, also run by the museum, offered prizes donated by students and the community, including gift cards to coffee shops and a trip for two to Africa.

Because the PWM is a 501(c)(s) non-profit organization and accepts no money from the district, this event was significant to them in terms of bringing in funds for things like facility improvements and outdoor enrichment for the animals. The museum also hoped to use the jubilee to identify supporters who are able to donate yearly instead of having to organize fundraisers all the time.

“This is an amazing program in that it's the only one of its kind in the United States,” said Robin Haines, the PWM Board vice president. “The students here have an opportunity [at the museum] that we want them to have every year. [We] want to keep the doors open.”

The students, who already do a lot in running the museum, were heavily involved in the fundraiser. Students ran the hour-and-a-half-long tours during the day, showing people around the museum and introducing the animals. At the jubilee dinner, they ran the animal meet-and-greets, assisted with the silent auction and served tables at the banquet.

As for the overall goal of the anniversary celebration, Haines said, “We want people to be aware that [the museum is] still open. I started volunteering here about four years ago, and there were many people that didn't realize that the museum was still open to the public. So, I think what we want to do is let them know that we're still open, that our mission hasn't changed, that we're still teaching kids about conservation.”

PWM Turns Eyes to the Future

by Noah O'Sullivan (he/him)

The student-run Petaluma Wildlife Museum is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year. Since opening its doors to the public in 1992, the Museum has faced many challenges, including COVID-19, but they have always bounced back better.

Soon, Phil Tacata, instructor of the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, and Michelle Walters, biology teacher, are going to be teaching two separate classes for the museum.

Tacata will be leading the Public Speaking for Environmental Science course, preparing the docents to lead tours and speak with groups about the museum, like the Zoo Hauls, where they bring student docents and animals directly to classrooms around Sonoma County. Walters will be teaching Exotic Animal Husbandry, training students in the care and keeping of the living animal ambassadors for the museum.

These courses will have University of California (UC) accreditation which gives students an opportunity to receive A-G credits from the two classes. Bringing in a second full-time instructor, so that the heavy responsibilities can be shared by two adults, is a necessity, said Museum board vice president Robin Haines.

The students in the museum will also be taking trips to southern Oregon to learn more about husbandry and docent work from professional zoos and museums. These trips will trade off yearly with a trip to Southern California for the same purpose.

Students in metal classes with Keith Benson, manufacturing teacher, are working on new enclosures for the animals in the museum. The enclosures will be animal and environmentally friendly.