catoctin- from snake farm to animal preserve

June 19, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

THURMONT, Md. - Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo near Thurmont has evolved from its roots as a two-acre snake farm to a sprawling preserve that's home to about 600 animals from across the globe.

The preserve - which includes wildlife exhibits on about half of its 60 acres - now attracts between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors per year, depending on the weather says Richard Hahn, who purchased the Frederick County property in 1966.

"We really never thought it would grow into something like this," Hahn says.

The late Gordon Gaver started Jungleland Snake Farm in 1933, hiring school teachers to guide educational tours during the summer months. Gaver garnered a good reputation in the business - and his assemblage of snakes at the small roadside attraction eventually outnumbered the reptiles housed at large zoos in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Hahn says.


"There were more reptiles here than in both those collections put together," he says. "And there were a lot of venomous snakes here."

Records show that Gaver - who also showcased turtles, crocodiles and a few monkeys - received a shipment of 30 cobras from Thailand just before he died suddenly in the mid-1960s. In those days, snakes were purchased by the pound or foot, Hahn says.

After Gaver's death, his animals went to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. The Baltimore Zoo also landed two impressive king cobras, Hahn says.

An empty building, cages and pits were all that remained of Jungle Land Snake Farm when Hahn and his wife, Mary Anne, purchased the property in March 1966, he says. It was a dream come true for Richard Hahn - and a relief to his wife.

Before they bought the former snake farm, snakes lived throughout their home.

"We had rattlesnakes under the bed and in the closets - no kidding," Mary Anne Hahn says. She's not laughing. "I was actually glad he wanted to buy this place because then we could get the snakes out of the house."

Richard Hahn's love affair with reptiles dates to his childhood practice of collecting garter snakes. He hoped to work with reptiles professionally after earning his college degree in biology, but the limited number of herpetology jobs at zoos nationwide forced Hahn to take quality control positions at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania and a pharmaceutical company in Baltimore, he says.

Hahn helped launch the Maryland Herpetological Society while living in Baltimore. He also befriended the curator of the Baltimore Zoo's reptile house, who told Hahn about a former snake farm for sale near Thurmont. The Hahns bought the farm, renamed it Jungleland Serpentarium, ordered about $125 worth of snakes and $75 worth of gift items and opened in mid-May.

What started as a seasonal job while Richard Hahn taught high school biology quickly turned to full-time work, he says.

"We just kept building and growing," says Hahn, who retired from the zoo in 1994 but returned several years later after a financial dispute with the zoological organization to which he and his wife had leased the property. "We're always working on something, trying to make the animals more comfortable and the exhibits better."

The Hahns have strived to keep the property as natural as possible, adding buffer zones to its borders and avoiding concrete and macadam sidewalks. Future plans, however, include the addition of some paved areas and boardwalks to make access easier for visitors with disabilities or those bringing children, Hahn says.

Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo now boasts hundreds of animals ranging from a rare golden Bengal tiger, African lions, a grizzly bear, camels and macaques to exotic birds, giant monitor lizards, kangaroos and lemurs. The newest addition to the preserve, Elena, baby sun bear, has been living nearby with the Hahns' son and his family, Callam and Laurie Hahn and their young son, Marshall, until the bear's home at the preserve is ready.

"I've had many things in my kitchen, but I never thought I'd have a bear," laughs Laurie Hahn.

Elena is slated to make her debut at the preserve Saturday, June 21, during the daylong "Big and Tall" honorary birthday party for Griz the grizzly bear and Tank the tortoise.

The preserve's gift shop offers a variety of zoo-venirs - including a large selection of stuffed animals, plush animal backpacks, model safari trucks, books, African-style wood decorations, plastic snakes, hats, socks, jewelry, T-shirts, books, key chains and bird-adorned dishware.

And preserve employees and trained volunteers host daily wildlife stage shows, animal encounters and day and overnight camps aimed at fostering visitors' understanding of and appreciation for wildlife, Hahn says.

"If people can get close to the animals and have a personal experience with them, then you can begin to teach conservation," he says. "In the long run, after I'm long gone, hopefully the next generation or the generation after that will remember those personal experiences and make sure there's a place for the animals. Then I will have accomplished something lasting."

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