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VALLEY WEEKEND | JAUNTS

Wild Animals Fit Right In at Chumash Center

The 427 acres of wooded grounds at Oakbrook Regional Park are ideal for the weekly hourlong shows.

February 22, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Visit the new Chumash Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks on Saturdays, and you'll likely come face to face with a wolf, an eagle, an owl, a raccoon, a possum, even an alligator.

In a sprawling oak grove behind the complex, Jerry Thompson, director of the Raptor Rehabilitation and Release Program, brings out the animals one by one during his hourlong weekly show.

The spectacular wooded grounds of this 427-acre spread in Oakbrook Regional Park are an ideal backdrop for the animal shows. In fact, the grounds here are as much of a draw as the center and museum that opened almost a year ago.

Visitors can take a guided walk deep into the park to see Chumash cave art believed to be 6,000 years old. They can sit under the oaks and hear Thompson talk about animals and how they lived compatibly with the Chumash.

"When the Chumash would hunt, they would ask permission to kill for the food," Thompson said. It's the same sort of respect and reverence he tries to pass on during the one-hour shows at the center.

In addition, Thompson next month plans to begin moving his Simi Valley-based animal compound to the center, where he'll continue to nurse injured animals back to health.

Thompson is the guy the Humane Society, government agencies or the public turn to when they find injured animals, especially birds. Last year his program nursed more than 1,400 animals back to health, leading to the release of 78% of them.

Those that can't be returned to the wilds or are too tame often end up in his educational program.

That's how a golden eagle named Shy-tan snagged a starring role in his show. The majestic bird lost a wing to a bullet, and now Thompson uses the eagle to deliver a conservation message.

"They look at the eagle and they can't understand why someone would shoot it," he said. "There's nothing like having a live animal up close."

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He sprinkles his presentation with tidbits about the animals--for instance, one of the eagle's talons can exert 450 pounds of force, and his eyesight is seven times sharper than that of humans.

Perhaps the most lovable of his menagerie is Indy, a wolf with a shiny black coat that nuzzles and licks Thompson's face like a dog. During the show he debunks animal myths.

"Little Red Riding Hood didn't do us any favors," he said, laughing. "Wolves don't eat people and owls are not the wisest."

Thompson is leasing 20 acres in the park for his program and has begun installing animal enclosures. Among the permanent residents will be a bear and two mountain lions recently "retired" from the movie industry. Once the compound is in place, walkways will provide educational opportunities to visitors.

The park, a former cattle ranch, is still a habitat of deer and an occasional mountain lion. Before its ranching heyday, the oak-covered hillsides were home to a small settlement of Chumash.

On the Saturday walks up to the cave paintings, Chumash docents such as Gilbert Unzueta point out huge boulders that still bear rounded holes where the women would grind acorns or other food and medicine.

Walking along the dirt road, Unzueta also relates how the Native Americans used their surroundings--the sage for cleansing, the elderberry tree for bows and ailments. For the kids, he tells stories, like the one about the red-headed woodpecker that tricked the coyote.

The gentle walk uphill to the paintings is about one mile. The first painting, in a hollowed-out sandstone boulder near the road, is a red stick figure in the shape of a swordfish, a fish revered by the Chumash.

The second requires a hop over a stream and a short climb up the side of a hill to a gigantic rock overhang that would fit at least a dozen people. Inside is another red figure, this one apparently a spider.

Other rock paintings have been found in the park, but these two are the only ones the public is allowed to see. Because they are fenced off, the only viewing is during the organized weekend walks.

Paul Varela, director of the center, said carbon dating of the caves suggests that the artwork is 6,000 years old. The two caves once yielded other artwork, but they have faded with time, he said.

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The Chumash who populated Southern California along the coast actually date back to 9,000 B.C. and once numbered 30,000. Today there are about 2,000 descendants, 1,000 of them living in Ventura County, Varela said.

In the museum, you learn how the Chumash used tule to make dome-shaped thatched homes called aps, and how they hunted, fished and traded. Their name comes from Michumash, which means "those who make shell bead money." Artifacts such as necklaces made of shells, beads, fishhooks, arrowheads, mortar and pestle, and tools are on display. At the entrance to the center rests an ornately carved replica of a tomol, the canoes the Chumash used.

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