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VALLEY WEEKEND | JAUNTS

Pet Menagerie Finds a New Home in Simi

Castle Earth museum attractions range from bunnies to birds and assorted insects. There are also dinosaur bones and puppet shows.

February 15, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walk into Ventura County's newest children's museum, and from the sounds, you will think you are in a pet store.

A gregarious parrot named Merlin screeches and squawks for attention. Tiny rats scurry around the gizmos in their cage. A fish tank-turned-miniature-tide pool gurgles.

Tucked into the corner of a Simi Valley strip mall, this is Castle Earth Children's Museum, where nature is king. Nature lovers Jerry and Tracey Adlof opened the place last October.

The couple had accumulated a menagerie in their Simi Valley condo over the past few years, often carting the animals to local schools for educational programs.

"They wanted much more, and we started accumulating other science things," Jerry Adlof said. From there, the idea of a museum blossomed. "We wanted families to come in."

And now they can. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5.50 for children 3 to 15 years old. One adult with the child is free, as are children under 3.

The animals are the big draw here. Three huge lop-eared rabbits--one a new mother of five bunnies--lounge in a cage with a barnyard backdrop. Kids can reach in and pet them.

*

Most of the other animals are not touchable, unless the Adlofs bring them out for a handful of kids to see up close, something they readily do. One of the more sociable is Dutchess, a 40-inch iguana with the personality of a lap cat.

"If she could purr, she would," Jerry Adlof said. When a class of fifth-graders from Grace Brethren Elementary School in Simi Valley visited the museum, he let students pet her as she relaxed on a tree branch, her eyes nearly shut.

"Look at her, she loves it," said Jacob Goldrich. "She's going, 'Aaahhhh.' "

Merlin the parrot is more temperamental, but talkative. "He's a ham," Tracey Adlof said. He will say "clap" if he has done a trick and wants applause.

The museum has parakeets and an aviary with tiny finches. Jerry Adlof built the enclosures for the museum's birds, turtles, snakes, lizards and bugs--like the vinegarroon, a harmless type of scorpion that kids clamor to hold when he brings it out.

He also rigged up the tiny tide pool in the fish tank. Kids can change the water level by pulling a string and watch the effect on hermit crabs.

Tracey Adlof's talents are visible on the walls. She designed and painted the murals, including one that depicts life-size images of an elephant, giraffe and zebra. A small stage for puppet shows or impromptu children's performances features another of her murals, this one of a life-size audience.

The bold, colorful designs and skylights give the 5,200-square-foot museum, formerly a gun shop, a bright cheerful feel.

In the back of the museum, kids can let loose with some hands-on activities. They can touch museum-quality replicas of dinosaur bones, including the whole skull of a toothy allosaurus. They can dig around in a sandy fossil pit for bones, and they can peer into a miniature dinosaur habitat with living plants.

In a curtained-off area, a black light illuminates a sky full of stars, planets and comets. Next to it, kids and parents can put on a stethoscope and listen to their hearts go thunk, thunk.

Everything has a natural-history link. Using magnets and bits of metal, kids can make big, goofy faces. They can experiment with weighing scales, musical instruments and a maddening game in which they try to roll a pingpong ball through a maze of nails.

In a back room with a seascape on the wall, Jerry Adlof teaches visiting schoolchildren about the animals, how they are cared for and what they eat. He lets the students touch them.

Other than trips to the classrooms, neither of the Adlofs has formal training with children or animals. But Jerry Adlof has been fascinated with wildlife since about age 6. He grew up in Simi Valley, wandering the hills nearby looking for critters.

"I found tons of garter snakes," he said. Not so anymore. "The ecology of Simi Valley is changing." And kids today don't go romping in the hills like kids did generations ago, so they don't have as much contact with animals. Some have never seen a parakeet.

*

All that led to the Adlofs' dream of a museum. But it wasn't easy. They couldn't get a loan or outside funding. Jerry Adlof still works in North Hollywood as a movie theater manager, a job Tracey used to hold at Mann Chinese Theater in Hollywood. They have two daughters, ages 8 and 4.

They finally resorted to what they called "creative financing." The couple has scavenged materials such as the movie theater seats they snagged during a theater remodeling. Tracey Adlof scoured thrift shops, gathering uniforms and costumes for the kids to play dress-up in.

Business was slow at first. "It's picked up some--we want it to pick up more," she said. They are full of ideas for the museum and anxious to carry them out. "We're going for it. This is a good thing and Simi Valley needed it."

DETAILS

* WHAT: Castle Earth Children's Museum.

* WHERE: 77 Tierra Rejada Road, Simi Valley.

* WHEN: 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.

* COST: $5.50 for children 3-15 (one adult free with paying child); 16 and over, $3.

* CALL: 583-5243

* FYI: They do birthday parties.

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