Life is not currently a picnic for Classroom Safari.
Though Bonnie Cromwell, founder of the Petaluma-based educational program, keeps on trucking her rare wild animals to local schools and homes, as she and her crew have done since 1987, the beloved institution has been weathering a number of challenges.
Last month, all of her exotic animals – critters most kids would never get a chance to see, and certainly never be able to touch - were moved from their longtime spot, high up Sonoma Mountain, to a closer, long-term temporary private residence. The change was primarily financial, according to Cromwell, the result of her rent being doubled on those previous digs. Though a permanent location still needs to be found, Cromwell admits there are pros and cons to the unexpected change.
“My animals are just 4 minutes from my house now,” she says. That’s an improvement, though she still envisions an interactive facility in the future, at some permanent nearby location. That, she says, would allow her to build bigger, more natural enclosures for the animals. Cromwell also dreams of being able to live in the same spot as the creatures.
And speaking of dreams, Cromwell has some other big ones for the future of Classroom Safari. Along with her business partner, Rich Pennington, she envisions establishing an interactive animal sanctuary somewhere in the North Bay. The educational site would draw visitors from around the Bay Area. Ideally, the facility would be 8-10 acres near Petaluma. Currently, Cromwell is seeking supporters with grant writing and development skills to assist with the major fundraising required to make such a place a reality.
Meanwhile, life goes on for the gregarious, kid-friendly animals of Classroom Safari, all of them the U.S. born descendants of critters from Africa, Madagascar, Costa Rica and beyond.
Cromwell’s ever-changing mobile menagerie currently includes one porcupine, two Cerval cats, three Fennec foxes, an alligator, several turtles, tortoises and lizards, a sloth, a lemur, some hedgehogs, and an estimated 60 snakes (Bald Pythons, tricolored King Snakes, Boa Constrictors, and others).
Many of these are rescue animals donated by people who had them illegally — it requires permitting and training to legally own exotic animals — or from owners overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for exotic animals.
After months of training and special care, Cromwell’s critters make regular appearances at schools and events, the Luchessi Community Center, The Petaluma Wildlife Museum, the Rivertown Revival, and other public places, including private residences for birthday parties and other wildlife-themed activities.
“The animals we bring are social, and enjoy a day out,” says Cromwell. “Those who don’t enjoy public appearances stay home.”
The Classroom Safari program is always evolving, she says, as new animals, new volunteers, and new educators join the program. The uncertainty of Classroom Safari’s current housing situation comes after a few years of challenges. In 2015, the program survived a fire on its previous site, slowing momentum considerably. According to Cromwell, recovery from the fire took years of fundraising and rebuilding.
Asked about her decision to devote her life and energies to the care of animals, and to spreading a message of appreciation for the world’s endangered and exotic creatures, Cromwell says she’s been doing it since she was a child, rescuing earthworms on the sidewalk, or baby birds exposed to pesticides.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Volunteers, animal sponsors, and donations of cash services are vital to the continuance of Classroom Safari, Cromwell says. Sponsors underwrite the care of a specific animal, and 100% of their money goes to that creature. Volunteer office workers are currently being sought to help with bookkeeping, grant writing and other projects. Donation of old pet carriers, blankets, toys, bags, and other useful items are much appreciated, as are donations of food – but do call for a list of approved food items. To help out, call Bonnie Cromwell at 707-529-9489 or going to Classroomsafari.org.