Festive festival

Endangered Species Faire celebrates 40th anniversary

Puppets galore are shown off during the Procession of the Species (2004 shown here), one of the favorite faire traditions.

Puppets galore are shown off during the Procession of the Species (2004 shown here), one of the favorite faire traditions.

Photo courtesy of Butte Environmental Council

Event info:
The Endangered Species Faire will be held Saturday (May 4), 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Cedar Grove in Lower Bidwell Park. Visit becnet.org for more details.

The first Endangered Species Faire—held on March 22, 1980, in Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove—started out in the same joyous manner thousands of people have since experienced over the years.

Writing in the CN&R’s March 28, 1980, issue, reporter Kevin Jeys described the faire as “an event that must be one of the finest, gentlest, most life-affirming tributes ever seen in Northern California.”

There was music and dancing and colorful art and bright clothing under a springtime sun on a grassy meadow surrounded by trees. The event was an uplifting response to one of the great global tragedies of our time: the die-off of so many plant and animal species because of unchecked development.

It served as well as a validation of popular support for the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which already had saved hundreds, if not thousands, of species.

Besides being a celebration of Chico’s many environmental groups, whose information booths ringed Cedar Grove, the faire was an enriching educational experience—especially for the many children who got to see and, in some cases, pet and hold wild animals.

Not everyone saw it in such a positive way, however. Shortly after noon, someone phoned one of the faire’s coordinators to report that a bomb had been planted at the site and was set to go off at 2.

“There was no choice but to evacuate,” said Pat O’Reilly, one of the founders. But the coordinators didn’t call off the event, choosing instead to entertain everyone with nature walks and other activities away from the faire site until 2 p.m. had come and gone and they knew the bomb threat was a hoax.

Nothing similar has happened in the 40 years since then—a fact that speaks to organizers’ skill at balancing their powerful message about the rapid disappearance of plant and animal species with a joyful celebration of the once-endangered species that have survived and thrived.

The three men who founded the Endangered Species Faire—O’Reilly, Paul Vittori and Rich Silver—didn’t know each other before they decided to start the event. Their paths crossed at the Bidwell Nature Center (now the Chico Creek Nature Center), where in casual conversation they discovered a mutual interest in organizing a nature festival.

“It was like we were birds of a feather,” Silver said. “Pat had the idea to do something, and that’s where it all began.”

From the start they realized that the faire’s mission was mainly educational and they needed to get children involved. So they began going into elementary school classrooms, where they encouraged the kids to make endangered-species puppets while explaining what was happening to their animals in the wild.

Expectations for the success of the faire were subdued: “Yeah, we can probably get 75 people,” O’Reilly said at one point. As it turned out, more than a thousand showed up. Since then it has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 attendees every year, according to Natalie Carter, executive director of Butte Environmental Council, which is now the sole organizer of the event.

The faire has grown apace, thanks in large measure to the many volunteers who have brought their creativity to the event.

Among them are the creators of such wonderful elements as the Celebration of All Species (later the Procession of the Species)—fabulous 11-foot-tall puppets representing the animal kingdom, who parade around the meadow accompanied by music from the Earth Band and children holding their handmade puppets. That ad hoc group, organized each year by veteran local musicians Gordy Ohliger and Mark McKinnon, is the “house band” of each festival, but Ohliger notes that other groups participate as well.

A person who has contributed greatly to the artistic side of the event is Kathleen Faith, who as a home school teacher was skilled in making puppets. For several years she helped kids at the faire make their own puppets. She also encouraged them to write plays, with titles such as “The Fantastic Forest Meets the People of Greed,” and present them at the faire.

More recently, Susan Tchudi and her husband, Stephen, have picked up the mantle, organizing a new generation of children in the puppet-making endeavor. Susan reports that this year about 350 kids are creating puppets at Little Chico Creek Elementary, Sherwood Montessori and Wildflower Open Classroom.

“We are also building two giant puppets this year,” she added, “a great blue heron and a giant California spotted owl.”

This year the faire is expanding its footprint onto the neighboring Chico Creek Nature Center campus and adding a stage, called the Bear’s Lair, for acoustic musicians and poets. There will, of course, be another, larger stage in the Cedar Grove meadow to accommodate the Earth Band and other electrified groups.

Now gearing up for the 40th anniversary celebration, organizers invite the public to once again witness this faire that has meant so much to the community—especially the children.