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[whitespace] Best Place to Cuddle a Ball Python

Creepy critters. Kids love 'em. Kids hate 'em. The Petaluma Wildlife and Natural Science Museum will give your kid a new perspective on things that slither, slink, or crawl along the earth--and a whole pack of big mammals as well. This private non-profit organization, housed in a compound on the campus of the Petaluma High School, boasts a saltwater tide pool, mineral displays, and a vast collection of live fish, insects, and reptiles, including Chinese water dragons, rattlesnakes, and a 13-foot Burmese python named Shirkhan and donated in January by the Humane Society after the snake got loose and almost ate a neighbor's cat. There also are dozens of taxidermied wildlife gazing down from the walls and arranged in natural displays, including many from the collection of Rohnert Park real estate developer and former big-game hunter Hugh Codding. Of course, these days it's uncool--and even illegal--to hunt some of these endangered species, but they're a great teaching tool. And learning is the name of the game at this treasure trove of knowledge. The museum, which opened in 1992, serves as an open classroom for up to 40 high school students each semester, providing lessons in wildlife biology management, hunter safety, and first aid. Many of the students pursue careers in veterinary medicine, environmental studies, and related disciplines. The facility also offers tours for school groups, including preschoolers who still have that childish love for rollie-pollies and other creepy things. The public is invited to visit the first Saturday of each month, and the museum hosts birthday parties by appointment. And this is the best part: Summer day camps give kids a chance to feed the animals and learn, not just entomology, geology, and paleontology, but a real love of nature. And, who knows, your child might even discover the sheer joy of cuddling up to a ball python. Petaluma Wildlife and Natural Science Museum, 201 Fair St., Petaluma; 778-4787.
--G.C.


Best Babysitter for Literate Children

Until I was old enough to dye my hair purple and smoke cigarettes, I never thought it odd that I spent all afternoon and evening, every afternoon and evening, at the library. For a single mother, I suppose this is the best place to drop off your kid while you go to work, simply telling the child not to move from his or her seat until you return. In the children's section alone, there is such a vast array of fascinating stories and novels that I used to be entertained for hours. For the first few years, I actually did stay in my round, electric-blue, padded wire chair, and only read what I could grab within two paces of the seat. As I got more independent, though, I dared to venture to the sections outside of the children's area--and the first memory I have of the vast expanse of the county library is one of frustration, because I knew I'd never possibly be able to read all of the books there. By now, I have savored a sizable chunk of its walls of wisdom, and am always comforted by the knowledge that I can find the research there. Sonoma County Library, Third and E streets, Santa Rosa; 545-0831.
--S.L.


Best Place to Teach Your Kids about the Food Chain

Want to get the kids interested in botany or entomology? Send them to California Carnivores, where the sundew plant boasts tentacles dripping with a gooey substance that reflects sunlight and attracts unsuspecting bugs. Once trapped in the goop, the hapless ant or fly becomes a meal, slowly digested by juices excreted by the plant's leaves. The Forestville nursery is the largest in the country dedicated to carniverous plants, with 550 varieties on display and more than 100 for sale from $6.50 to $50. Owners Marilee Maertz and Peter D'Amato loan plants to area teachers for a bit of Little Shop of Horrors in the classroom. "Kids learn about the relationship between plants and insects," Maertz says. "Like the assassin bug that doesn't get caught in the glue and actually comes in and steals the insects." Occasionally frogs fall into the trap, and even rarer, Maertz says, skeletons of rats and mice have been found in large species of carniverous plants in Borneo, where pitcher plants can grow big enough to hold a gallon of water. "We think of plants as our servants. We hack them up and make dinner out of them," Maertz says. "A plant that eats something is a little frightening and definitely intriguing." Just don't fall in. California Carnivores, 7020 Trenton-Healdsburg Road, Forestville; 838-1630.
--J.W.


Best Way to Get a Duck

As cozy and cute as the Sonoma Plaza is, it ain't no biosphere. Sometimes humans have to intervene to keep the downtown from being entirely overrun by cock-of-the-walks and defiant ducks. The city has taken a nice and humane line on this issue by culling the duck population once or twice a year and offering the ducklings up for free adoption. "They're generally not for backyard pets," says a Public Works Department representative. "We want them to have as good of surroundings as they do here." That means good shade, cover, and water, which the park foreman will come out to check when your name comes up on the waiting list. That also means you can't eat them. To get on the waiting list, just call the Sonoma Department of Public Works at 938-3794.
--M.W.


Best Place to Expose Your Kids to Adult Bathroom Graffiti

"Actually, I've never seen any grafitti here," objects Sonoma State's Excel director Greer Upton. "And the children are always supervised. It may seem absurd to send an eighth-grade boy to the bathroom with a friend, but I am a fanatic about safety." Upton is also a fanatic about her 11-year-old spring and summer program for gifted and motivated youth. Offering an array of spring Saturday and weeklong summer classes, the Excel program gives fourth- to 10th-graders the chance to study in a college classroom at an, well, excelled rate. But choosing which class to take may be the hardest part. Offerings range from African music and culture, to premed studies, to crystal-radio building, to mosaic-making and clay workshops, to an interdisciplinary study of chess and the medieval world. There's even a course that demystifies advertising while encouraging youngsters to develop their own products and promotional campaigns. Originally conceived to serve only those who test tops in their grades, the Excel program has been revamped to include all comers, Upton reports. "The kids edit themselves out," she says. "Those who aren't terribly motivated don't want to go to school in the summer anyway." Excel Youth Program, SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. For a brochure and details, call 664-2394.
--G.G.


Best Place for Old-Fashioned Conspicuous Consumption

If your children cannot be dissuaded from spending their chore-cash on Magic, Pokémon, baseball, and football trading and game cards, get in the car and steer them to North Bay Star Cards, where owner Dick Spackman will give them a fair deal and treat them with the respect that all of that floor-washing, room-cleaning, and garbage taking-out deserves. A retired IBM auditor, Spackman began his own card collection at age 8, specializing in Willie Mayes, a player he can still Say Hey! about, even after nine years in the card business. Selling his collection in 1988, Spackman used the funds as a down payment on a house (note the lesson here, children). Not one to raise a fuss if a youngster's wallet holds a dollar or two less than the priced amount, Spackman stays in the black by priding himself on having the largest collection of vintage sports cards in the Bay Area and typically draws buyers from San Francisco and the East Bay. But it's North Bay's own sunny ambiance that is most pleasing. "I always wanted this to be a friendly environment," says Spackman. "Most baseball card shops are dark and dreary. I wanted a place that is light and well organized, because it's important for the kids to be happy. It's all about the kids. If you don't have them, you don't have a business." North Bay Star Cards, 5 Fourth St., Petaluma; 769-1190.
--G.G.


Best Place to Tickle a Frog

The great outdoors. It's, well, a great place to take kids, a great stress buster for beleaguered parents, and a great chance to commune with nature. And Sonoma County is filled with an array of great-outdoor kinds of places, from the shady paths of Jack London State Park to the majestic trees at Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve to the rolling surf at Salmon Creek State Beach. But Crane Creek Regional Park, part of the county's growing regional park system and undergoing restoration and improvements started in 1991, is a great escape for those looking for an easy-to-access place to picnic, hike, and explore the world. Tucked in the rolling hills east of Petaluma Hill Road in Rohnert Park (due west of Sonoma Mountain) and studded by gnarled moss-covered oaks, this 128-acre jewel offers six miles of well-kept trails, most flat and easily navigable by toddlers and tykes. And there's plenty to see. Stroll to the top of Hawk Hill for a glimpse of the Cotati Valley's green pastures and soaring raptors. Legend has it that a golden eagle or two has been spotted there. Hike down to the gurgling creek, which between October and June is home to some frisky frogs. Splash in the creek. Continue on the looping trail where spring wildflowers--including lupine and poppies--abound. Search out lizards, snakes, and deer. Horses are allowed on the outer trails, and leashed dogs are welcome. But best of all, you can leave your cares behind--there's a sheltered calm about this place that takes you just a few hundred yards from civilization, but miles away from your hectic schedule. And that may be the best gift that you can give your kids. To find Crane Creek Regional Park, turn east on Roberts Road (off Petaluma Hill Road a mile south of Sonoma State University) and continue to Presley Road. The park is open from sunrise to sunset. There is a $2 parking fee. 527-2041.
--G.C.


Best Place to Raise a Noble Savage

The canyons of Rio Nido suffer more than their due: There's sliding mud and more sliding mud; there's dereliction and poverty. But for those of us who had to eat their vegetables because there were children starving in Berkeley, Rio Nido has got it all. Set alongside the rich green of the Russian River, Rio Nido can be a children's paradise. The canyons are sparsely driven and offer endless swooping bike runs. The kind of place where you can still ring a bell at lunchtime and know that your kids will hear it wherever they are and come running home, Rio Nido features among its pluses an elderly couple who put out a miniature golf course of their own devising each summer; a lush, center-strip park that fills Canyon 7, complete with tennis courts and climbing trees; a swimming pool in the town center; river access for swimming, building castles, launching boats, and capturing frogs; and plenty of high wooded areas for hiking and exploring local dope plantations. As the British say in positive exclamation: Savage!
--G.G.

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From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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