Small zoo falls on hard times The zoo unleased: Come July, the landowner is kicking out the Catoctin Mountain Zoological Society. But, he says, the animals can stay.

March 23, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

THURMONT - Nature is a rough business. Mel Danner remembers when Canada geese dropped by the pond at the Catoctin Mountain Zoo, where the mute swans glide so gracefully. A goose then drowned a swan's baby by pushing its head under the water.

"We don't realize how cruel nature can be," says Mr. Danner, the zoo's director.

Or how cruel business can be.

"Oh, absolutely. You stick your head out and watch it get chopped off."

Chop, chop. The humans are skirmishing at the Catoctin Mountain Zoological Park a former snake farm turned try-real-hard neighborhood zoo in Frederick County. It's this big business of running a small zoo that's got the upper primates hissing at each other.

Oblivious to the rift, the lower primates and reptiles are back on stage. Kids are again stuffing letters into "Griz's" mailbox, and the zoo staff writes back in care of the 11-year-old grizzly bear and zoo mascot.

The Catoctin Zoo is open for another season. Excuse its $H appearance the zoo has had a really bad winter. Come summer, who knows what will be here.

A stop in childhood included a zoo. Those backyard zoos fathers drove families to on weekends. For kids, it was the Big Event. They didn't notice the skimpy pens; they noticed the beastly smell, wonderful ripeness in the sweaty air, and the wild look of the place. The zoo stock was simple and predictable: randy spider monkeys, deer galore, a comatose tortoise, a boa with a moving lump in its gut, peacocks and guinea hens jay-walking on the grounds, and maybe an emu the poor man's ostrich.

A brown bear was usually the headliner. Son, look at those claws! The bear was given a childish name. The bear was old and lagging. He looked like Griz, the Catoctin Zoo's most famous resident.

"There is no danger that Griz will not have a place to go. He will not have to go anywhere. It's the [Catoctin Mountain Zoological] Society that needs to find another home," reads a March 1 facsimile from Richard and Mary Anne Hahn of Arcadia, Fla.

Mr. Hahn, a 59-year-old licensed animal dealer, owns the land where the zoo sits. In 1966, he bought a 60-acre snake farm called the Jungleland Serpentarium. He soon turned the jungle into a zoo. In the 1980s, a group of animal-loving souls formed the Catoctin Mountain Zoological Society, which manages the nonprofit Catoctin Mountain Zoo Park. The society pays rent to Mr. Hahn, who retired in 1994 and moved to Florida.

Enter Melvin Danner, who as a boy sold mice to the snake farm. Mr. Danner became the society's executive director and has been running the zoo since last year. This has been a problem for Mr. Hahn.

Mel Danner is a businessman, not a zoo-keeper or zoologist. "But to run a business, you don't need an expertise in that business." Mr. Danner says he's done a good job $50,000 worth of improvements, 75,000 visitors last year, including about 15,000 school kids.

Attendance is better than it's probably ever been, Mr. Hahn agrees. But he's not happy with the way the society is running the zoo. Too much time and money spent on curious improvements, such as fountains in some exhibits. Too many bills sent to Florida, when maintenance costs should be paid by the society. Too many late rent payments, the landlord says.

The society was a week late paying its January rent of $2,500 to Mr. Hahn, who went to court to evict the zoo. "It was a question of paying my employees or paying the lease. I paid my employees. If that's an error in judgment, I'm guilty," Mr. Danner says.

Mr. Hahn isn't thrilled with Mr. Danner's salary of $45,000, which happens to be the zoo's yearly rent.

"I think Mel has tried very hard to do the right thing, but he only focuses on the money. This tends to override other priorities," Mr. Hahn says.

Rick Hahn is simply an animal dealer "who's attempting to cripple the zoo," Mr. Danner says.

Perhaps it's best they will be done with each other July 1. Mr. Hahn is not renewing the society's lease in June, meaning Mr. Danner will no longer be running a zoo outside Thurmont.

Mr. Hahn says "a highly qualified firm" has committed to leasing the zoo.

That's fine, but the zoo now needs highly qualified money to stay open, Mr. Danner says. Last month, he asked the Frederick County Commission for $25,000 to help pay the zoo's bills. The commissioners said no, we aren't a bank.

"It's not the taxpayers' business to bail out a nonprofit that can't make ends meet," says Commission President Mark Hoke, who has been to many zoos but not Catoctin. "As much as I hate to see the zoo go away, it would not be an absolute disaster to the county. The zoo is not essential."

A hard winter

Three weeks before the zoo re-opens, Mr. Danner walks the mussed property. "It's very depressing this time of year." Snow and rain have hit this land hard. The trails are a wreck, and the whole place needs vacuuming.

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