In a quiet, tree-shrouded nook next to Westwood Hills Park, a grizzly bear and mountain lion face each other eye-to-eye – and both creatures await those who pass through the front door.
Despite the jagged teeth and pointed claws, visitors can get as close to these animals as they wish. The grizzly and feline are part of the stuffed, mounted menagerie housed in the Carolyn Parr Nature Center, which for more than three decades has exhibited the creatures inside a double-wide building on Browns Valley Road – an up-close look at the mammals, birds and even insects native to the Napa Valley.
In a city whose wineries, restaurants and hotels seemingly pull its public image further upmarket with each passing year, the Carolyn Parr center gives residents a vivid glimpse of their natural backdrop – one that fascinates many of the children and others who stop by, according to a volunteer docent.
“As soon as they come through the door, they go for the bear – either that or the mountain lion,” said Joshua Thornton on Sunday afternoon as he opened up the exhibit building tucked in an easy-to-miss, tree-shrouded spot beside the Westwood Hills parking lot. “If I could only count the number of times I’ve had to tell kids, ‘Don’t touch the bear or the hair will fall out!’”
Such engagement with Napa’s winged and four-footed denizens has gradually drawn in visitors who otherwise would have been oblivious to the collection and the stories it can tell, according to the museum’s director of the last 13 years.
“People go up the hill (into the park) and often try to come over here to use our restroom or get water or directions; otherwise they just drive past,” said Joyce Nichols, president of the Napa Valley Naturalists, which oversees the educational exhibit. “It’s just a small building, not very ostentatious. But later, some come back with kids once they see what’s going on in there.”
The museum was the brainchild of Carolyn Parr, a local supporter of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation who co-founded the Napa Valley Naturalists in 1978. After Parr’s death two years later, a portion of her estate went to the Naturalists to build a nature center, which moved into a manufactured building on Browns Valley Road in 1984.
Though well-stocked with mounted fauna from bobcats to badgers to terns, the Carolyn Parr center is far removed from the stereotype of taxidermy-stuffed hunting lodges. None of the animals have been hunted for display purposes and most are made from the bodies of the fatally injured, except for the mountain lion, which museum directors say was shot by a Lake Berryessa resident after it killed 19 goats in the area.
In addition to whole animals and the miniature riparian, desert and other habitats housing many of them, the museum includes a collection of pelts and skulls from black bears, coyotes, foxes and other animals that children are encouraged to touch and handle. A lending library offers books on nature and the environment for those paying annual dues to the Carolyn Parr center.
Though regular visiting hours are scheduled on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, the nonprofit museum’s outreach includes regular class visits from Napa schools that send children on guided weekday tours, as well as summertime visits by youth groups at the nearby Connolly Ranch. The center also hosts monthly presentations educating Napans about local species such as bats, owls and coyotes.
Sunday was one of the quieter afternoons among the frozen-in-the-moment forest dwellers. An hour passed before Thornton, the docent, received his first visitors: Jim Hart and Diana Chapman, a Southern California couple who had moved to the neighborhood in August and had found the building after arriving at the park.
“I always wanted to see one in real life,” said Chapman as she peered through a glass case at a mounted badger, before she and Hart turned their attention to the mountain lion and grizzly – and then to photo displays a few yards away, including layouts showing the rescue of an orphaned beaver being bottle-fed like a baby.
Inanimate though the resident animals are, Nichols described them as some of the most important ones in Napa for educating residents about the value of the valley’s remaining open spaces.
Seeing them up close, she said, reminds people “that animals need to have space, need to be allowed to be in the wild, and it’s (people’s) responsibility to make sure that we all live together peacefully, harmoniously, happily.”