By Camel, By Truck, By Foot: Take a Look at the Catoctin Zoo
by Ayleen Gontz | Photography by Bill Ryan
Just south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Thurmont, Md., lies a gem of a zoo where you can go nose to nose with a coati, trade snarls with a fossa, and stare down a cassowary. The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, with more than 500 animals on 55 acres, offers visitors what zoo director Chuck Eicholz called an “animal-forward” experience.
“We want the animals to come up to the front of the enclosure and respond to your voice,” Eicholz said. “We want you to feel like you’re interacting with the animals.”
The Alligator Roll Out, the first big event of the new zoo year, signals the unofficial arrival of spring at the zoo and the official end of hibernation for the alligators. Visitors can watch as handlers move the congregation by truck from its winter enclosure on the north end of the zoo to the southern end, where the animals are off-loaded by hand and introduced to a habitat that replicates a Louisiana bayou.
“It’s a great look at the gators, different from how you usually see them,” Eicholz said. “And it gives our visitors a good idea of what goes on behind the scenes as we care for the animals year-round.”
For hands-on interactions with animals, the zoo offers several options. Upon entering the zoo, you can buy a ticket for the popular one-hour Global Wildlife Safari. The ride, on an Army surplus troop carrier, gently bounces through 25 acres of habitat that is home to a variety of animals from North and South America, Europe and Asia. With biscuits in hand, you’ll soon be face to face with bison, zebras, watusis, ostriches, kudus and emus — all of whom are eager to be fed, and many will let visitors pet them.
At Keet Landing, upwards of 200 parakeets fill the zoo’s walk-through aviary. Comfortable around humans (most of them have been surrendered by their previous owners), the birds enjoy the company and sometimes will alight on an outstretched arm.
For more in-depth interactions, ask at the front desk about the zoo’s Keeper Talks. These regularly scheduled events — which Eicholz describes as 10- to 15-minute conversations with guests — introduce specific animals, describe what their lives are like in the wild, and provide information on how they adjust to their habitats at the zoo. Many talks may include the option to handle snakes, insects and birds under the supervision of a zoo keeper.
Younger guests can also enjoy the petting zoo, which features donkeys, goats and sheep, as well as camel rides.
The zoo was established in 1966, when Richard Hahn bought the Jungleland Snake Farm. Since that time, it has grown from a roadside attraction to an accredited member of the Zoological Association of America.
“We are actively making exchanges with other zoos and documenting the breeding of several species,” Eicholz said. “We need to know what it takes — environment, habitat, food, relationships — for a species to breed successfully.”
Visitors can get a good look at the zoo’s superstars: the year-old twin fossas, cat-sized carnivores with big teeth and extra-long tails. The Catoctin Zoo is one of several institutions breeding these Madagascar natives. After being rejected by their mother, the babies were hand-fed by zoo staff and will soon be moved to a new, larger enclosure with plenty of space for prowling and climbing.
Toward the center of the zoo, a majestic red-crowned crane struts through her enclosure near the Japanese gardens. Last year, she laid two eggs, giving the Catoctin Zoo the opportunity to be the only zoo to successfully raise a baby red-crowned crane. Listed as an endangered species, fewer than 3,000 of these East Asian birds are found in the wild.
Then follow your ears down the path to one of the liveliest — and noisiest — enclosures in the zoo, where you’ll find one of the largest displays of white-bellied storks and sacred ibis in the United States. Both species are on the threatened list, and staff at the zoo are documenting nest-building activity.
Eicholz noted that the zoo also acts as a resource for local and regional animal rescue organizations.
“About one-third of the zoo’s animals are owner-surrendered or rescued,” Eicholz said. “Being a safe place for abandoned and hurt animals is an important function, and those animals sometimes become part of our educational programs.”
The zoo has become home to emus that have been rejected from emu farms because they are the wrong color, parrots and macaws that have outlived their owners, and alligators that had been kept as pets until they grew too big. An injured great horned owl currently in residence will eventually be released to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and returned to the wild.
In 2017, the zoo welcomed 72,000 visitors, and Eicholz hopes that number will increase to 300,000 within five years. As the Catoctin Zoo continues to grow, Eicholz sees that the identity of a zoo connects animals and people, yet still contributes to local and global wildlife conservation as deeply engrained and very important to the institution’s mission.
“We want to erect newer and better exhibits but keep the look and feel of being in a park,” he said.
The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is open from March to November. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, with the last admission one hour before closing. Admission is $19.75 for adults and $14.75 for children 3-12; children 2 and under are admitted free. Senior and military discounts are available.