I have come to see many zoos I've visited as necessary evils. The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, Maryland, however, isn't necessary at all. Federal or state authorities should shut it down. If government can't, the people of Maryland should: Let's boycott the place and enable capitalism to provide the punishment it deserves -- taking some animals out of their misery in the process.
The zoo's marketing is detached from reality. Catoctin claims that it is "one of the finest zoos in Maryland." Brother, if that's true, we need to launch an immediate investigation into not just Catoctin but into every zoo in the state.
Spend a day there, as I did on May 28 with three friends, and you will see a nightmare in broad daylight. We all came away convinced that the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is more of a prison than a preserve.
We spent our time in the zoo and I focus my comments on it. We did not take the safari ride to see what we hope is a more open preserve side of the establishment because we were too depressed to linger any longer. Endangered Sun Bears from Southeast Asia that are supposed to live in tropical rainforest habitat paced back and forth in a dry, dusty prison cell on dirt. A tiger sat in solitary confinement. A mountain lion limped across its outdoor cell. Deer, llamas and goats all begged for the food visitors brought them. It was amusing at first, pathetic upon further reflection.
"The zoo does not respect the animals here," Tomoko MataHari Miura told me as we toured the place last Saturday. "Many are poorly treated. It's an unhealthy environment for the animals and the space is definitely too small for them." She knows a little something about wildlife -- serving as a manager for the Japan Bear and Forest Society.
No part of the zoo wreaked of more desperation than the home for animals labeled as "wolves" -- my favorite animal in all the kingdom and one whose beautiful howl I've heard bellow out across the Alaskan outback. The four wolves sentenced to live out there lives here were skeletons beneath tufts of fur. The pack animals whose destiny is to roam wide open spaces could only race in frantic circles inside their cage. They looked like they were losing their minds.
I don't claim to be an animal whisperer and none of the animals at Catoctin sent me a text message but I know that if I were them, I'd want somebody to take me out of my misery. My own father has long told me if he ends up in that sorry of a state, I have to promise to take him deep sea fishing and come back alone.
Catoctin is managed by the Global Wildlife Trust, a charity that now runs the facility. The trust takes in a little more than $1 million a year on average from ticket sales, memberships and other sources, according its 2009 tax return Form 990. (If the link doesn't work, visit Guidestar, register for a free account, and then put Global Wildlife Trust in the search box.) The husband-and-wife tandem of Richard and Mary Anne Hahn serve as president and secretary/treasurer, respectively, and they certainly don't appear to operate the site to get rich. Their trust paid them less than $60,00 combined. Daughter Laurie Hahn serves on the board of directors but receives no compensation. Neither does board president Carole Brown.
What then is the motive for operating such a heart-breaking operation?
Catoctin claims the trust's mission "is dedicated to broadening human understanding of the animal world."
That's typically where I begrudgingly add the word "necessary" before "evil" when I refer to a zoo. My idealism wants to believe that zoos -- especially well-managed facilities -- give children a chance to see animals they could otherwise only experience by computer screen or television. I hope they are infused with wonder and develop a sense of connection to all things wild that leads to forming a conservation ethic -- which in turns propels them to fight for wildlife protection. Great zoos can pull that off while simultaneously providing a respectful, humane habitat for the wildlife they house.
Catoctin Wildlife Preserve pays but lip service to that idea on zoo front, falsely boasting that it achieves its mission through "immersion in naturalistic habitat recreations and educational programs using live animals and instructional tools both on-site ... and through presentations to the greater community."
There is not much natural in this zoo.
I have no reason to doubt the intention of the Hahn family. I've not met them but I can only imagine that they are good, hard-working people who likely should be applauded for their intent -- but not for their execution. I've worked for nonprofits for the past 11 years and know that a kind heart doesn't always equate to professional competence.
Someone attempting to justify the zoo's operations might point to the zoo's "credentials" page on its Web site. There you'll find a long string of organizations and acronyms that appear at first glance to give Catoctin all the paperwork it needs. The zoo proudly states it's an accredited member of the Zoological Association of America and that it is licensed by a wide variety of governmental authorities including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Inspection Services; U.S. Department of Interior's Animal, Fish and Wildlife Division; U.S. Department of Natural Resources of Maryland.
If the Catoctin zoo gets a passing grade from those authorities, this fact should serve as an indictment against the entire zoological industry and the federal agencies responsible for overseeing it. Let's reform this system post haste.
I have no idea if the preserve side is any better than what I saw and I can't bare another visit to find out. The zoo, though, should be closed immediately. No animal should be forced to suffer like that. No government agency should condone it, no Maryland tourism entity should promote and no citizen should pay to see it.
[Photos courtesy of Won-ok Kim].