Seven years ago, Bella Sessi discovered her “lifesaver” tucked along an edge of the Petaluma High School campus just behind the football field.
She can still recall that first visit to the student-run Petaluma Wildlife Museum in 2013 as a freshman in high school, a memory that marks the start of her involvement with the center where she now works as an animal care technician.
She had lost her mom to cancer just months prior and entered high school feeling lost and untethered. She hadn’t expected that a museum management class a friend offhandedly suggested she enroll in would end up providing her the kind of refuge and purpose she needed.
“The museum has been one of the most significant things I’ve ever been a part of. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t had the ability to take the class and learn that my calling is with animals,” Sessi said.
But months into shelter-in-place, the museum that means so much to her and to countless families and students is struggling to remain afloat after the nonprofit’s primary sources of funding were canceled. Volunteers also recently discovered that as the coronavirus pandemic endangered its financial health, a different kind of pandemic was spreading inside among its snake population in the form of a deadly parasite.
Response from the community has been swift, said board member and Petaluma High School teacher Jessi Redfield, as donations to the GoFundMe campaign topped $15,000 in the first 24 hours. That allowed volunteers and Sessi, the only employee, to purchase enough food for the rest of the year and begin quarantining and testing its 36 snakes for the Cryptosporidiosis parasite infection.
“We’re bleeding money having to feed the animals, so this GoFundMe was a desperate last-ditch attempt,” Redfield said. “Testing is also a really big cost, it’s $200 a test and it often requires two rounds of testing, so if we test the whole snake collection that’s at least $12,000.”
Now two weeks in, donations have raised just under $24,000 from 268 donors, just shy of the museum’s $25,000 goal to fund museum maintenance and employee costs through the end of the year.
However, the museum is likely to need even more help to take it into the next school year, with its next phase of fundraising aiming to raise another $30,000, roughly $54,000 total, the approximate cost of its yearly operating budget.
“We have enough money now where we can stay operating but the cost of testing is astronomical for us as a nonprofit, we were already going through hard times before all this,” Sessi said.
According to Redfield, the museum created in 1989 is the only natural science museum run by students in the United States. Classes provide Petaluma High School students the opportunity to learn about biology, animal husbandry, management and lead tours for the average 3,500 visiting elementary school students each year.
About 60 students take the class each year, Redfield said, caring for the museum’s taxidermy collection and 48 animals including snakes, turtles, lizards and iguanas.
But as significant as the museum is to students on campus, it still remains a hidden gem for many Petaluma residents.
“We often have people just walk in when we have our doors open who live down the street who go years never knowing it exists,” Sessi said. “I’ve always said that it’s one of Petaluma’s best-kept secrets.”
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr)