Wild Kingdom

June 25, 1995|By Kim Clark

Rising Sun -- Ed Plumstead spends each evening preparing a meal of fresh sliced yams, grapes and bananas for two gibbons.

Five professional zoo keepers take care of the rest of the 300 animals at his zoo here in the green hills of rural Cecil County. But Mr. Plumstead saves for his own delight the evening meal with Pug and Squeaky.

Why the apes, and not the giraffe that leans its towering head down to give him an air kiss when he visits? Or the fox that yaps and chases its own tail in excited pleasure when it hears Mr. Plumstead's voice? Or even Iggy the iguana, who waggles his orange body and grins whenever Mr. Plumstead scratches his scaly cheek?

Mr. Plumstead shrugs, then starts laughing just thinking about the apes' dark, clever faces, and the way they show off by leaping around their pen.

"The gibbons are like little people. They are funny."

Mr. Plumstead, thin, bespectacled and a young-looking 67, wears frayed jeans and a holey wool sweater as he takes a visitor on his evening rounds. Like all the pens here, Pug and Squeaky's compound looks homemade: A rough wood-and-wire outdoor play area is connected to a small room. Mr. Plumstead lets loose a rope connected to a hatch in the middle of the pen, cutting off the apes from the rear of the room. He lays down the raw fruits and vegetables, then retreats and pulls the door back up.

"You have to be on your toes," he explains.

"They'll pull your hair out by the roots. They'll bite your hand if they can."

Just like people.

The story of Mr. Plumstead and his Plumpton Park Zoo is about how animals and people -- including Mr. Plumstead himself -- sometimes hurt those attempting to help them.

Shortly after he turned 40 acres of his family's farm here into a zoo nine years ago, Mr. Plumstead was thrust into the center of a rancorous political dispute in Cecil County -- a dispute that became so serious that the county government shut down the zoo for six months last fall and Mr. Plumstead in turn filed a $5 million lawsuit against the county.

Mr. Plumstead, a shy, private man sometimes described as a modern-day Dr. Doolittle, was forced to launch a public campaign to save his animals.

In April, he decided that the only way he could save his zoo would be to end the zoo's 25-year lease with the county and give up the public subsidy, both of which were at the heart of the debate.

Now, Plumpton Park must do what few zoos around the country have to do. Unlike big-city zoos from Baltimore to San Diego, Plumpton Park must cover its operating costs -- about $15,000 a month -- through admission fees alone.

Mr. Plumstead's decision to go private represents a victory for his critics in Cecil County, who have long contended that the zoo is a luxury this cash-strapped county -- known for its high unemployment and poverty rates -- can ill afford.

But it is distressing for the 50,000 children and parents who visit the zoo each year. For many of them say the zoo has been one of the few affordable activities in a county whose other major attractions are a designer outlet mall, and boating access to the Chesapeake Bay.

To survive, Mr. Plumstead has already raised his prices by $2 for adults and 25 cents for children. The new prices are $6 and $3.

Though still less than the Baltimore Zoo's $7.50 and $4, the price increase hurts some of Plumpton Park's biggest fans.

Julaine Weinsek, 14, of Bel Air, started going to the zoo when she was 10, and especially liked the reptile room because she has pet lizards.

"I liked it because it wasn't that expensive and wasn't crowded," she says.

She was so upset when she heard from her teachers at Southampton Middle School about the zoo's troubles that she and several other students decided to use their lunch hours to make bookmarks, which they sold for $1 apiece to benefit the zoo. The students sent the zoo donations totaling $2,200 this spring.

The kids' vote of confidence "made me feel great," says Mr. Plumstead. It also buoyed him through the recent political storms.

Mr. Plumstead, who builds architectural models for a living, is neither a professional zoologist nor a politician. With wry, self-deprecatory humor, he admits he has made some painful mistakes in handling both animals and people in the last few years.

"My family has always said I am stubborn," he concedes.

But he believes that the county officials who insisted he give up public aid in order to reopen the zoo also are stubborn. They are making a mistake, he says, because they are hurting a zoo that has educated and delighted thousands of children and adults.

"The county is out of the zoo business," he says bitterly. "And maybe they are out of a zoo, too."

****

Mr. Plumstead never intended to start a zoo, anyway.

True, when he was young, Mr. Plumstead, like many kids, longed for a menagerie of exotic pets. Once, on a visit to relatives in Maine, he met a man who had a pet bear, and pleaded with his parents for a bear of his own.

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