BEND — Most of the animals at the High Desert Museum south of Bend can’t tell that the natural history museum has been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the three resident otters, Brook, Rogue and Pitch, have sensed something changed. Instead of showing off their tricks for hundreds of people each day, the social mammals eagerly wait to be fed by the museum’s curator of wildlife, Jon Nelson.
Nelson and his three staffers are the only interaction the animals get during the day. Nelson feeds fish to the otters three times a day and spends an hour a day cleaning their enclosure.
“The other animals don’t really know whether we are open or closed,” Nelson said, “but these guys get real excited when they see people.”
Nelson, 41, has worked for the museum since 2009, when he started as a volunteer. He walks about 8-10 miles a day around the 135-acre museum as he cares for the wildlife. He is responsible for more than 150 creatures, including about 25 birds, 11 mammals — such as porcupines, badgers and a bobcat — and 64 species of reptiles, amphibians and fish.
“Whether we are doing programs or not, the animals need to have a lot of enrichment so they are getting attention every day,” Nelson said.
The museum still waits for direction from Gov. Kate Brown about when it will be allowed to reopen. Businesses such as retail shops, restaurants and salons reopened May 15.
“It’s really not up to us,” said Dana Whitelaw, executive director of the High Desert Museum. “We will wait for the governor’s order.”
In the meantime, the museum is creating a reopening plan. Part of it includes one-way routes through the museum, limiting the number of visitors at one time and making sure everyone is maintaining a six-foot distance.
The museum also is increasing its online offerings, such as virtual field trips for students and activities families can do from home. Later this month, the museum will host an online trivia night.
While the museum waits to reopen, Nelson, his staff and the maintenance crew are the only employees on the property.
Usually, Nelson would have a team of about 30 wildlife volunteers to clean the enclosures while he took the animals out and trained them. The volunteers would also feed the animals, if Nelson was busy.
Training is an important aspect of the animals’ care, Nelson said. And now, he doesn’t have as much time as he would like to work with the animals.
“A lot of people think of it as doing tricks, but really it’s enrichment for the animals,” Nelson said. “It’s mentally engaging for them so it’s a huge component of their captive welfare to have that interaction with staff and have some structure in their day.”
In case the museum reopens soon, Nelson is training three birds: a peregrine falcon, a Harris hawk and a turkey vulture.
“All our raptors do the free flight program,” Nelson said. “That takes a lot of training and a lot of conditions to be able to turn them loose in this environment and get them to fly over a crowd of people.”
Without proper training, he said, the birds would just fly away.
On Thursday, Nelson trained the peregrine falcon, Pefa. The training was also her exercise for the day. She flew back and forth multiple times before finally slowing down to retrieve a treat.
All the birds at the museum were injured in the wild or given up by a falconer. Pefa came to the museum from a falconer, who felt she flew too low to the ground.
But flying low is perfect for the free flight programs, Nelson said.
Nelson is preparing Pefa for the museum’s Raptors of the Desert Sky program that runs over the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The program draws 200 people who watch as the birds fly over their heads.
He still has some work to do. Seeing all the visitors again will be a shock for the birds, he said.
“They would be scared,” Nelson said. “The only people they have seen for the last couple of months are the one or two people who take care of them.”