- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, just north of Frederick, Md., provides a fusion of nonnative wildlife — such as lions and tigers in cages — and native wildlife, including geese and turtles.

But whether it’s a mammal with big teeth or a mallard with no teeth, the motto is to allow visitors to get as close and personal as possible, says Richard Hahn, director of the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo.

“What we’re about is bringing humans and animals closer — both physically and emotionally,” Mr. Hahn says.

Consequently, visitors can get within feet of an African lioness, which, according to a sign, can eat up to 80 pounds of food in one meal, or a double-wattled cassowary, a nearly 130-pound Australian bird that can run about 30 miles per hour.

“That’s one of the things I hear from visitors. They like that they can get up so close, they like that they can feed some of the animals, and they like that the environment, habitat is pretty natural,” he says.

However, Mr. Hahn also acknowledges that some visitors don’t like the gravel paths that meander around clusters of exhibits representing different continents — Australia, Africa, Latin America and North America — ponds and wooded areas with signs sometimes far between.

“Some people want you to tell them exactly where to go and what to see, but we want to encourage them to explore,” he says.

As they explore, they not only will find more than 400 nonnative animals and at least as many native ones, but they also will encounter several picnic-table areas and playgrounds, complete with jungle gyms, swings and playhouses. Visitors are welcome to bring their own lunches and snacks. During the summer months, a snack cafe will be open.

The high-season summer months, starting Memorial Day, also will feature camel rides and an increased number of animal shows in which a zookeeper will highlight a specific animal and in many cases let visitors touch and ask questions about the animal, Mr. Hahn says.

“We try to be as hands-on as possible,” he says. “I think if children — during their formative years — get that special bond with animals, they will help protect animals in the future.”

However, there are some animals it might not be wise to touch, such as the incredibly venomous snakes in double-glass enclosures in the Hot Stuff exhibit right next to the zoo entrance. More than a dozen cases with venomous snakes are showcased in this exhibit. One of the snakes, the Gaboon viper from West Africa, is the largest African adder and can grow to 6 feet long. Nevertheless, it’s not the size that is terrifying. It’s the venom — up to 600 milligrams — that it releases when it bites. It takes less than a sixth of that to kill a human.

The exhibit also covers the different types of venom snakes release. Neurotoxin, for example, affects the nervous system and can cause cardiac arrest and paralysis in the prey.

Reptile lovers also can enjoy giant snakes in the giant reptiles exhibit, which features, among others, a reticulated python, a snake that’s native to Southeast Asia and grows to at least 35 feet long.

Reptiles play an important role in Catoctin’s history. The parcel of land on which the zoo sits used to be a snake farm starting in the 1930s, Mr. Hahn says. The snakes would be shown to anyone willing to pay a small fee, he says. When he took over the place in the 1960s, he realized the appeal of snakes was limited.

“I would get dads and their kids, but the mothers would stay in the car, for whatever reason,” he says.

Over the years, he branched out, and he is still expanding. He has 60 acres at his disposal and uses just 25 of them. He envisions a wolf exhibit, for example, in the near future.

“I want there to be something for everyone,” he says as he reaches down to pick up a candy wrapper left on the unpaved path. “More than anything, I hope to help people tread gently on the Earth.”

When you go:

Location: Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, 13019 Catoctin Furnace Road, Thurmont, Md.

Directions: Take Interstate 270 north toward Frederick. Continue north as I-270 becomes Route 15. Continue on Route 15 for about 14 miles. Look for signs for Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, which will be on the right, just off of Route 15, about two miles south of Thurmont.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Parking: Free parking lot.

Admission: Adults $12.95, students and seniors $11.95, children age 2 to 12 $8.95; children age 1 and younger pay no admission.

Information: 301/271-3180 or www.cwpzoo.com.

Notes: The site has a cafe, but it doesn’t open until later in May. Visitors are welcome to bring lunch and snacks. Picnic tables are available throughout the park. Wear good walking shoes, as the park’s paths are not paved.

The park has frequent family events. Coming over the next few weeks:

• Mother’s Day, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Mothers will receive $1 off the admission price and a free bag of zoo food to feed park animals. They also are welcome to learn more about other mothers — some four-legged, others with beaks or tails — that live at the zoo.

• Catfish Derby, 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. Fish for catfish from zoo ponds. Bring your own gear and bait or borrow a cane pole and buy bait from the zoo. Visitors are welcome to catch and release or take home their caught catfish. (This helps the zoo management with population control.) Bring buckets. The event also features prizes for children. Fishing is open to all ages with regular admission, plus a fishing fee of $2 per person.

• Be Bear Aware, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 10. The zoo will highlight its bears with special exhibits, encounters and talks. Also, any monetary donations made this day will be matched by Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and benefit Vital Ground Foundation and other bear conservation efforts. The Vital Ground Foundation’s mission is to protect and restore North America’s grizzly bear populations by conserving wildlife habitat, according to its Web site.

• Father’s Day, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 18. Fathers receive $1 off the admission price and a free bag of zoo food. They also will be able to learn about animal dads at the zoo.

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