By ANAHAD O’CONNOR
October 6, 2006
CATSKILL, N.Y. Oct. 2 — For three-quarters of a century, exotic animals have sidled up to fences at the Catskill Game Farm here to nibble food from the hands of visitors.
Adults and children alike can slip crackers through a fence onto the waiting blue tongue of a 15-foot-tall giraffe, bottle-feed a baby goat at the park’s nursery, or walk over to the petting zoo where deer and llamas clamor for attention.
But on Monday, the game farm will shut its gates for the last time, the latest casualty of a struggling economy in upstate New York. And though the fate of the farm is all but certain, the future for many of the animals is not.
About 1,000 are set to be auctioned off later this month — including elk, antelope, rhinos, monkeys, snakes, alligators and tortoises — and there is concern that many may land in poorly run roadside zoos or in the hands of collectors with no guarantee for their well-being.
Most of all, there is fear by residents in the area that scores of the animals will end up at hunting ranches, where trophy hunters pay thousands of dollars to shoot exotic animals in fenced areas in so-called canned hunts.
“Most of the animals that are bred at the game farm are prized for their meat and are perfect canned hunt targets,” said Kirsti Gholson, who lives in Woodstock and helped form a local coalition, Advocates for Game Farm Animals, to find homes for the animals. “We are extremely worried about them ending up in those types of facilities.” Canned hunts have drawn harsh criticism from animal rights groups and some prominent hunting organizations because the animals have little chance to escape, and are sometimes drugged.
Allegations that the Catskill Game Farm has sold animals to hunting ranches have dogged the operation for several years now. At least two major zoos have refused to send animals to the game farm for that reason.
Now the possibility that some of the farm’s tame, hand-fed animals could end up as easy targets for hunters has drawn the attention of local residents, some lawmakers and animal advocates.
They have pleaded with the owner of the farm to donate the animals to more than a dozen sanctuaries that have offered to take them. And they have urged the federal government to oversee the auction on Oct. 18.
“These are exotic animals that are accustomed to people,” said Brian Shapiro, a member of the Ulster County Legislature and chairman of its Environmental Committee. “They have brought a lot of joy to families and to children. It just doesn’t seem right for these animals that have been eating biscuits from our hands for years to be sent off to slaughter or to a hunting ranch.”
More than a thousand people have signed a petition urging the state to subsidize the operation or designate the 1,000-acre farm a state park. One group is planning a protest on the road outside the park tomorrow.
A few potential buyers have made private offers to Kathie Schulz, the owner of the farm, a family-run business for 73 years. But none of those buyers were taken seriously, she said, adding that the cost of operating the farm have grown so steeply that at this point its fate is sealed.
She said every precaution would be taken to see that the animals are sold to licensed dealers who will treat them humanely.
“We are trying to do everything possible to ensure that these animals go to good homes,” she said. “That’s very important to us. It took us years to collect these animals, and we don’t want them hanging on somebody’s wall either.”
But many who are concerned about the future of the animals say those assurances mean little. While dealers generally must have licenses to purchase animals at an auction, there are no laws forbidding a buyer from turning around and selling animals to hunting ranches.
Started in 1933 by Ms. Schulz’s father, Roland Lindemann, the game farm was once known around the world for the rare and exotic animals it imported.
But to generations of upstate New Yorkers, the game farm was the mountainside hideaway that was unlike any other zoo, a place where visitors could step beyond fences to feed or play with gentle animals.
On a recent warm afternoon, a tree-size giraffe strolled toward a fence to greet a visitor and open its mouth, hoping for a biscuit. Pygmy goats climbed on rocks and jostled for attention. Small deer followed children through the petting zoo.
For many people, like Stacey Ulrich, visiting the farm is a tradition. Ms. Ulrich, who lives nearby in the town of Owego and has been going to the farm with her family since she was a child, said she now takes her 5- and 10-year-old daughters every year.
“I’m heartbroken,” she said. “This has been such a mainstay of the community that a lot of people are sad. My kids are just devastated.”
The farm, however, has had its share of notoriety. In recent years, animal advocates complained that as the zoo was running low on money, it was falling into a state of disrepair and its animals were suffering. On several occasions, the farm was cited by federal inspectors for things like exposing animals to “significant injury hazards” and failing to provide medical care to a lame giraffe and an injured elephant.
The farm also came under fire from the San Francisco Zoo and the Toronto Zoo, which stopped doing business with the game farm because, officials at those zoos said, they had discovered that it was selling animals to canned hunt operations in Texas.
Inspection records from the Texas Animal Health Commission show that about 150 animals including zebra, deer and bison were shipped to Texas from the game farm between 2001 and 2004.
Where those animals ended up once they entered Texas is unclear, but records show that only five camels and two zebras were later shipped out of the Texas.
Don Elroy, the director of Wildlife Advocacy for the Humane Society of the United States, said it was no mystery where the rest of those animals went. “They are invariably going to canned hunts,” he said.
But Ms. Schulz said the records were confusing because she shares an operating permit with her ex-husband, Jurgen C. Schulz, who owns an exotic-animal import business of his own in Texas.
“Unfortunately, our permits were run together as one instead of separately, and that made it look like Bambi was coming out of the zoo and going to canned hunts,” she said.
When the park closes on Monday, some animals will remain behind, possibly for a breeding business, and some others, like a group of cougars and some horses, will go to sanctuaries. But a vast majority will be sold off.
“Nobody is sorrier than I am to have to close it,” Ms. Schulz said. “But I have to make a decision with my head, not my heart, and it’s just not financially feasible to keep it open.”
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