Lions and Tigers and Bears
Watching the Wild Things at the Region's Oldest Family-Owned Zoo
I know all this because I came face to face with a half-ton grizzly in the Frederick County mountains. I lived to tell this tale because the bear in question was safely ensconced in a sturdy pen. "Griz," as he's known, is one of some 350 animals that reside in the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo just outside Thurmont.
If I just wanted to see wild animals, more than 2,000 are waiting in nearby Druid Hill Park, home of Baltimore's own 65-acre zoo. But I'd driven westward to the base of Catoctin Mountain--72.5 miles on the odometer from my Charles Village house--with more in mind. I wanted to know how this family-owned and -operated zoo has managed to survive for 35 years. The 125-year-old Baltimore Zoo is in the midst of a $60 million renovation campaign. Sixty million dollars! Running zoos ain't cheap. So in an era when just keeping a dog or cat healthy can be a costly proposition, how has the Hahn family managed to keep Catoctin's multispecies menagerie going since 1966? Are the animals well cared for? And how does this homespun operation in the mountains compete with the publicly financed big-city zoos to the south and east?
Answering my questions and showing me around the nearly 35-acre zoo is administrative director Whitney Hahn, the 32-year-daughter of the park's founders. As we begin strolling the zoo's meandering gravel trails, she explains that wild things dwelled on this stretch of roadside decades before her family got involved. The zoo was previously called the Jungle Land Serpentarium, a fancy-pants name for what may be more simply termed a "snake farm." Opened in 1933, the Serpentarium was classic bit of roadside Americana wherein garish signage--king cobra! largest in u.s.a.--lured folks off the highway for the privilege of watching poisonous snakes writhe in mesh-covered pits.
"They would wrestle alligators and milk cobras, stuff like that," Hahn says of the previous tenants. "It was very old school, and to my way of thinking, macho."
When the snake-farm owner died in the mid-'60s, Richard Hahn was teaching high school biology in Frederick. An avid animal enthusiast, he decided to put his biology degree to work. He bought the rustic reptile ranch--then home, his daughter says, to "several snake pits, three birds, and two monkeys." The Hahns moved into a house on the park's grounds and set about setting up a zoo.
By this point in the conversation, we've ambled down to Tank's pen--Tank being a 575-pound Aldabra tortoise the zoo has had since Whitney Hahn was 3 years old (and Tank was a svelte 100 pounds). So what was it like growing up in a zoo? "At the time, I hated it," she deadpans. While most kids have to take out the trash and make their beds, she faced a daily regimen of hard physical chores--hauling animal food, cleaning cages, and the like. She was putting on animal shows for tourists at 13.
"But then I hand-raised wolves," Hahn says, reflecting back with a wistful gleam in her eye. "We had tiger cubs living in our kitchen and we got to play with baby elephants. I had a chimpanzee that was my best friend when I was 5 years old." She also threw some killer slumber parties--picture a gaggle of giggling girls stalking slumbering creatures with flashlights.
Across from Tank's patch, a gaggle of girls are giggling now as a herd of exotic goats snatch food pellets from their outstretched arms. ("Goat slobber is irresistible to kids," Hahn says.) To my mind, feeding more than 300 animals has got to be the most expensive proposition for a mom-and-pop zoo. (Griz alone puts away 25 pounds of his feed--a mixture of meat, grain, and vegetables--every day.) But Hahn says it's labor costs that eat up, er, the lion's share of Catoctin's budget.
"Food costs are incidental to paying people to distribute the food properly," she says, noting that the zoo employs six full-time animal-care specialists. Chow prices do come into play in specific instances, like with elephants, which Hahn says gobble $50,000 a year in food. Ergo, Catoctin doesn't have elephants anymore.
As we head over to check out Kashmir and Rapunti, the preserve's pair of Bengal tigers (the former cat of the rare golden-colored variety), I notice a goodly number of stroller-rolling families. Hahn says one advantage her zoo has over the big-city variety is the relaxed, rural atmosphere.
"Even on holiday weekends, when we may have a 1,000 visitors, it never feels crowded," she says. "You never have to raise your kid up over your head so they can see past eight rows of people in front of you."
The big cats, not unlike their domesticated cousins, spend much of the day napping. We find both Bengals sprawled languidly on the ground of their sizable enclosure. "See, they have a deck and pool--that's more than I have at my house," Hahn says.
Catoctin, like most modern zoos, has largely moved away from cramped, barred cages, though a few creatures still reside in smallish pens. (Hahn says the costly process of upgrading enclosures continues.) The tigers may need the extra room, as they've made a few attempts at mating
"He's still young," Hahn says of Kashmir. "His targeting has been good, but his timing has been off." Evita and Diego, the zoo's jaguars, have also been frisky of late, but young Diego too suffers from sexual inexperience. (Hahn boils it down to a case of "bad aim.")
Big-cat cubs or no, the zoo is on a slow but steady expansion track. The family still has 30 acres of undeveloped woodland to tap into. A few years ago, however, no one was thinking about adding animals or acreage to the preserve. Indeed, the zoo almost went belly up
The problems date back to 1988, when Hahn's folks established the nonprofit Catoctin Mountain Zoological Society. They wanted to make sure the zoo wouldn't close when they passed away, so they turned over day-to-day zoo operations to the society. It was an unmitigated disaster. Without a Hahn hand at the helm, things quickly went to hell: Bills didn't get paid, the kids worried that the federal Department of Agriculture (which oversees zoos) would pull Catoctin's animal exhibitor's license, traffic in the parking lot thinned. The family, Hahn says, blames the problems on their poor choice of a director and the general irresponsibility of the society.
"In June of 1996, my dad and brother said enough is enough," Hahn says. "They came in one morning and literally changed the locks on the place."
Hahn, who graduated from Towson State University in 1991 with a degree in mass communications, was living in Alabama and working as a disc jockey when she heard the news. "It was important for me to support the family, so I packed up and came back," she says. "The first year was rough. Our financial relationships were trashed. We couldn't even buy toilet paper on credit."
But the zoo survived, and Hahn has found new ways to use her communication skills. Catoctin now has its own show on Frederick County cable TV. And in August 1996, Hahn and a coatimundi--a long-nosed Central American cousin to the raccoon--took a trip to New York to appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. ("The coatimundi peed all over Conan, and I haven't been back since," Hahn says.)
Our strolling conversation has taken us from Latin America (an Andean condor, spider monkeys, jaguars) to North America (prairie dogs, alligators, mountain lions) and into Australia (dingoes, emus, cassowaries). Though the preserve appears orderly and professionally run, there's no escaping the fact that zoos are a frequent target of animal-rights groups who feel keeping wild animals captive--even under the best of conditions--is inhumane. Hahn has heard the complaints.
"When done well, zoos can be used to educate people so that they care about animals," she counters. Getting people personally acquainted with exotic creatures, she figures, will make them more aware and concerned with perhaps the greatest threat to animals: human destruction of their natural habitat. Most zoo animals, she adds, come from other zoos and private breeders--not the wild.
When Hahn departs to tackle some administrative duties, I spend some time wandering about (and dodging the baby strollers) on my own. I check out the fishing cats (which look like overgrown tabbies, save for the webbed feet). I listen to the maniacal cackle of the kookaburra bird (aka the laughing jackass), whose loopy call sounds like the class clown erupting from the back of algebra class. I watch the Sulawesi macaques' tiny, humanlike hands root for fallen food pellets in the gravel just beyond their pen. I'm no Department of Agriculture inspector, but everybody looks healthy and happy.
But then there's Griz, who's still in a lather. He's grunting, and snorting, and occasionally rising on his hind legs. I can almost feel his hot, moist bear breath. He looks wild. (You'd never guess Griz was born in an Ohio zoo and bottle-fed by humans.)
On the way out, I run into Hahn in the zoo gift shop. She explains that grizzlies are by nature solitary animals--except in the spring. Except when a grizzly's thoughts turns to, well, making the bear with two backs. It's mating time, but Griz is out of luck--the zoo has no plans to acquire a lady grizzly. (Besides, the bears like their sex rough--so rough, their impassioned couplings often lead to physical injury to one or both partners.)
But Griz could still become a daddy one day, Hahn says--sometimes zoos swap sperm as a means to breed beasts. Just how the Hahns might go about getting a sperm sample out of 1,000 pounds of snarling Ursus arctos horribilis is a question I didn't want to think about.
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