Here the wild things are, again Wildlife: Rumors of the small zoo's closing were premature. Veterans Griz the bear and Tank the turtle are doing their thing to renewed acclaim.

Catching Up With ... the Catoctin Zoo

September 28, 1997|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

THURMONT -- After thorough inspection by a trained journalist, the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo can be characterized in a word:


"I still meet people in Frederick who say, 'I thought the zoo was closed,' " says Whitney Hahn. She presides over Catoctin, a municipal zoo outside Frederick and about 65 miles from the Baltimore Zoo.

When we last visited in March 1996, little Catoctin Zoo was a big mess. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoos, noted that some animal enclosures were too small, too dark, too isolated from other animals. The exhibits and grounds were sad sights. Despite the staff's good intentions, the zoo was on life support.

"It went to hell in a handbasket," says Dr. Mark Wilson, now the zoo's consulting veterinarian.

The zoo did close briefly last year, as new management replaced old management that had replaced the original management. Late rent checks, eviction notices and finger-pointing had characterized what was then the Catoctin Mountain Zoological Park. Now, it's a "Wildlife Preserve," but it's still a neighborhood zoo under any name.

"Griz" -- a 12-year-old brown bear -- is still the zoo's signature attraction. Griz still looks as if he'd rather be somewhere else. "Tank" -- a 55-year-old tortoise -- still likes to be scratched on his leather neck. The pot-bellied pigs are still pigs. Admission is still $8 for adults. And crowds still look as thin as Tank's neck.

Richard Hahn, a 60-year-old animal dealer, bought this snake-farm land in 1966. Hahn, who eventually retired to Florida, leased the zoo in the 1980s to the Catoctin Mountain Zoological Society. It became the society's job to run the place. Then came the eviction notices, bad blood, and so on. The zoo is now back in the Hahn family.

The Hahns always kept a house on these 26 acres outside the Catoctin Mountains. Whitney Hahn had a zoo for a back yard.

"I had the coolest place for slumber parties," Whitney says. "We'd sneak out at night with flashlights. I knew where all the animals' hiding places were."

She grew up with Tank, knows his sweet spots for scratching. She knew Griz way back when. Whitney remembers tiger cubs && living in their kitchen and wolf cubs eating a pair of her shoes. Steal a look at her hands: needle-thin scars mark the place where a mountain lion cub ripped her. Snakes have chomped on her. And so has an arctic fox. Yes, Whitney is a story in herself.

The 28-year-old communications major from Towson University fled her zoo home after graduation to work in other zoos -- commercial radio stations. Whitney was the midday disc jockey at radio stations throughout the South. She loved jockeying on the air and didn't particularly miss "getting peed on" by zoo critters.

You can take the girl out of the zoo, but you can't take the zoo out of the girl. Whitney (named, by the way, after actress Whitney Blake from the old "Hazel" TV series) was working at an Alabama country station nicknamed "The Possum." Then, she got the call last summer. Her father asked her to come home -- the family was back in the zoo business.

"I gave a week's notice," Whitney says.

After the zoological society moved out, the Hahns and Mark Wilson took over. The team walked all over the Yellow Pages in search of "cash only" services. With no credit to its name, the zoo still needed bare necessities such as hay. Usually, they could afford only a week's worth. The zoo was hanging on by a straw.

"We had this cheerleader's saying -- 'Whatever It Takes.' It helped us get through the crisis of the day," says Wilson, who was interim zoo director until Whitney became administrative director.

The public needed to be sold again on the zoo. The zoo's thinking in a peanut shell: We're not the Baltimore Zoo and don't pretend to be. We're an up-close and personal zoo -- a touchy-feely place, where kids can rub Tank, write Griz and see the babies born (just the other day) to the fishing cats.

Whitney put her broadcasting background to work. In June, she and a few Catoctin creatures appeared on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." We don't stay up that late, but Whitney says it was fun, and the zoo got a plug. She didn't like driving in Manhattan, though.

"I like country things like the smell of manure."

Manure is in the air today, a school day. Looks as though we have Catoctin Zoo to ourselves. Whitney hops a fence to reach Tank and points to a cigarette burn in his shell. The "up-close and personal" zoo approach can have its ugly downside.

A sound shatters the Western hemisphere. And what would that be? "That's the sound of a female sun bear telling a male sun bear I have a screaming headache, so leave me alone," Whitney says.

Later, out by the goats and sheep, a baby-shrieking howl flies from a work shed. And what would that be the sound of?

"Castration," Whitney says, point-blank.

Her guest recoils.

"Just kidding," she says. "One of the Barbados sheep is getting a check-up."

We knew that.

We don't know whether the Catoctin Zoo will live long and prosper. But as trained journalists, we are sure of one thing:

This must have been a cool place for slumber parties.

If you go

The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week until mid-October. Admission is $8 for adults, $5.25 for children. For more information, call 301-271-3180.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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