The California Academy of Sciences museum: Worth the Hype?

Monarch the Grizzly Bear: dead and in person at the Academy of Sciences

The crowd was already a quarter mile long at 8:45 a.m. It was a total mob scene; after all, this was the first “free Wednesday” at a museum that normally costs almost two and a half sawbucks to get in. The people in the line were getting restive at about 9:15. Someone in front of me was trying to stay calm by practicing Tai Chi. People in back of me were glowering because they resented me for having a better place in line, while people in front of me were looking at me as if they feared I would try to steal their spot. A nervous-looking woman kept making calls from her cell phone: “Get here fast! Meet me at the Goethe-Schilling statue!”

But the actual museum — when we finally got in — was astonishing. We walked through a steaming tropical rainforest with blue morpho butterflies flapping all over the place and dark creatures slithering in the shallows below us. There were water chestnuts, bamboo palms, and live, dog-faced fruit bats hiding out in a slimy cave. So many butterflies were landing on visitors that a female staff member stood by the elevator and asked people to check their clothes. “Make sure that our butterflies haven’t planted themselves on you anywhere,” she said.

There is a place where gullible people can put their fingers on two pressure points and experience a mildly unpleasant electric shock (in honor of the electric eel, which floats in a tank nearby.) There is also a spot where museum-goers can gleefully spam their elected representatives with emails about Co2 emissions reductions (I sent a few emails myself…), and a creepy albino alligator with pink eyes. The place also has many features that will please younger visitors, including exhibits with creatures whose names sound vaguely like dirty words (Kirk’s Dik Dik, and “Prince Berhhard’s titi monkey,” just for starters.)

The exhibits do not gloss over the many ways in which we have trashed and thrashed our delicate ecosystems here in the Golden State. It was hard not to feel outraged when I saw the mounted, stuffed form of “Monarch the Grizzly,” one of the very last California grizzlies (the last of them was gunned down in 1922.) Monarch was one of the lucky ones, in the sense that the bear at least died of old age — but the beast lived most of its life in capitivity, right here in Golden Gate Park…)

So the answer to the above question is a resounding yes. It is absolutely worth the hype, and I will be back next month to check out the planetarium.

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