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Mandated COVID-19 shutdowns closed most of Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek to the public on Friday the 13th of March.

Many of those programs re-opened — perhaps only temporarily — on Friday the 13th … of November. The symmetry isn’t lost on Executive Director Carlos de la Rosa.

“We never really closed,” he said. “We still had full staffing and our hospital was still open, seven days a week. What stopped was allowing visitors into our exhibition hall.”

Which cut approximately 30 percent of Lindsay’s revenue, he said. The indoor public facility saw about 100,000 visitors a year, meaning that survival during the pandemic and beyond requires adaptation.

“We’ve been re-inventing ourselves,” said de la Rosa, who took the helm at Lindsay in 2019. “A lot of things needed to happen. We had to get control of the space around our building. Now, it’s become our stage.”

At least that is the plan.

After working with the city of Walnut Creek — which owns the land on which Lindsay sits, as well as adjoining Larkey Park — operations had begun partially moving outside. That was before Monday, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new statewide COVID-19 mandates that pushed many California counties, including Contra Costa, into the most restrictive “purple” tier which prohibits many indoor activities yet still allows some outdoor functions for businesses, churches and museums. As of Monday afternoon, Lindsay’s website said it is temporarily closed except for its animal hospital and referred visitors to check state and county health websites for coronavirus status updates.

Despite the current COVID-19 uncertainties, Lindsay is in the process of launching new wildlife shows just outside the front of the building, in its “Raptor Redwood Grove” near the front stairs and past turkey vulture Lord Richard’s enclosure.

The shift was in the works even before COVID, de la Rosa said.

“It’s not just for the time of COVID,” de la Rosa said. “We’ve doubled our programming spaces. We’re producing shows now.”

Visitors shop at the museum’s outdoor pop-up gift store. The 65-year-old nonprofit has also launched an online store as it weathers the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Paul Hara, courtesy of Lindsay Wildlife Experience)

Animal attraction

And the stars are Lindsay’s inhabitants. During a dress rehearsal for “Lindsay Inside Out,” which began Nov. 13, a few Larkey Park visitors (including a pair of fascinated local crows) sat down to watch and learn about Tyto the barn owl, Rocky the gopher snake, and Penelope the North American porcupine.

Tyto had a GPS tracker strapped to his back — “I call it his jet pack,” said Emma Molinare, Lindsay’s Curator of Animal Encounters — in case he decides to go exploring. Staff has been training Tyto — who came to Lindsay as an injured baby in 2004 — and other inhabitants for about four years to fly in a controlled fashion. Which is good for them.

“It needs to be fun for the animals,” Molinare said, before the rehearsal. “We are stimulating their brains. They’re like us. We can have all the food in the world, all the shelter we want, but our brains need stimulating.”

Tyto’s GPS is linked to Molinare’s phone, which can track him up to 100 miles away.

“We never really closed. We still had full staffing and our hospital was still open, seven days a week. What stopped was allowing visitors into our exhibition hall.”

Carlos de la Rosa, Lindsay Wildlife Experience

“This is a dream we’ve had for our birds,” she said. “It’s a real big deal. We’ve been training for this show for over a week, but the elemental training has been there. It’s going to be great.”

Molinare says if an animal doesn’t do what’s expected, the trainer moves on.

“They’re individuals,” she said. “They’re like us. There will be times they don’t want to do stuff. We’re not going to force them to do anything they don’t want to. We work for the animals.”

Molinare also asks plenty of questions of children in the crowd, bringing a degree of interaction meant to educate and inspire. The music for the program was written by Joshua Armosino, a Lindsay education specialist. Much of the content centers on what a person should do when they encounter an animal in the wild. Or an injured animal (Call Lindsay’s animal hospital, which is still open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily).

The dress rehearsal featured Tyto, Rocky and Penelope. But that will change.

‘Bigger and better’

“We’re going to do bigger and better for the animals, and bigger and better for the public,” said Molinare, who’s been with Lindsay for six years. “There’s a nature withdrawal for people right now. But you can still find joy in communing with nature right here. You can get out of your car right here, come to Lindsay and hug a redwood tree.”

“Communing with nature is a healing experience,” she said “We could all use a bit of that right now.”

Once cleared to resume, Lindsay Inside Out program will start at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. The hourlong presentation is limited to three “shelter groups” of up to six people living in the same household. Tickets are $30 per member group, $45 for non-member groups. Schedule information and ticket availability can be found on the museum’s website. Masks are required.

While the main exhibit hall is still closed, Lindsay is trying to expand programs, with weekday offerings like Mini Monday Hikes, Minis at Lindsay, Big Screen Story Time, and Habitat Ranges and Eco Changes, which aims to teach older children about California’s rich biodiversity and shifting climate. For more information, visit the museum online.