By DAVID KAGAN Sun-Gazette Correspondent
MILL HALL — About halfway between Mill Hall and Beech Creek in Clinton County, just off Route 150, is Bechdel’s Birds and Beasts. Charles Bechdel started this little-known zoo back in the 1970s because, as he said, “I just love animals.”
Birds aplenty squawk, screech, cluck, chirp, whistle and warble from their cages on the grounds not far from the base of beautiful Bald Eagle Mountain. Bechdel keeps many types of pigeons and chickens. He also has ducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, canaries, parakeets, finches, cockatiels, macaws, ostriches and rheas.
His Polish owl pigeons peck with their strangely short beaks. His pygmy pouter pigeons inflate their breasts. His araconda chickens lay green eggs.
In fact, his zoo all started with birds back in 1972, after Hurricane Agnes.
“A guy named Lucas, from the nearby Marsh Creek area, who had been flooded out, came here to my farm. He had some exotic pheasants — beautiful birds, you know — that he wanted to get rid of before he moved away. I took them in,” Bechdel said.
Even before that, when Bechdel was a child growing up in the Flemington area, he had raised geese. Since moving to his present location 50 years ago, he has farmed, owning dairy cows and other cattle and growing corn and oats.
The “beasts” part of his zoo includes domestic and exotic animals. Roaming the grounds inside the fences and cages, which Bechdel built himself, are goats, deer, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, prairie dogs, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and wolves. Visitors also can see pygmy goats, European fallow and muntjac deer, red and gray squirrels, and white, or albino, raccoons.
Among Bechdel’s exotic animals are two Bengal tigers, both born on the premises.
Other exotics include two 32-year-old members of the Ursidae family — Kay, a Himalayan bear, and Ethel, a Malaysian sun bear.
Bechdel will tell you that the mountain lion is his favorite animal. When he opened his zoo, he bought a pair of cubs and kept them inside his house throughout the winter, bottle-feeding them.
“They were so nice and they stayed that way all their lives,” he said.
Bechdel now has three other mountain lions. They still are his favorites, although he said with a laugh, “The one male would like to eat me. When I’m down there, I can tell. He lets me know!”
Alligator, wallaby, python, serval, Patagonian cavy, Celebes ape, and guenon, macaque and rhesus monkeys all call the zoo their home.
Tammy Perez of Blanchard has worked for the Bechdels for about seven years, while Bechdel’s wife, Margie, is a longtime employee. She has worked on the farm since their marriage in 1953, helping to care for the zoo’s birds and beasts for 35 years.
“It’s been pretty hectic at times,” she said, though adding she has a great love for animals.
Charles Bechdel Jr. also has helped out through the years and lives just down the road. Three other sons live nearby, too.
Rounding out the Bechdel family are five daughters, 26 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two dogs — Octavia, a large Neapolitan mastiff, and Flo, a little Shih Tzu.
Feeding all the animals through the years has been a challenge Bechdel meets in various ways.
His farm has provided corn and oats and neighbors and nearby butcher shops have given him older cuts from their freezers. Bechdel bought miscut meats from Imler’s of Altoona until they went out of business. The Thomas family of Bellefonte’s Bi-Lo store had donated enough meat for feeding about once a week, and Bechdel has obtained road-killed deer from the state Game Commission.
“Every once in awhile, someone will have a calf that dies, and they’ll offer it to me,” he said.
The zoo has been licensed since 1977, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewing it twice a year and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, annually. The state Department of Health also has done its evaluations through the years.
Visitors appreciate the low entrance fees — $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 2 to 12, under 2 free, group rates for schools or churches, and people with disabilities, free.
It has been “a labor of love — that’s all this is. There’s no real money in it,” Bechdel said.
David Brumbaugh and Melissa Horn, Lock Haven University students, recently visited Bechdel’s Birds and Beasts. Brumbaugh, 20, has lived in Clinton County his whole life. He was about 6 when he last visited the zoo with his father.
“There aren’t many places where you can get an experience like this — seeing tigers, wolves and monkeys so close-up,” Brumbaugh said.
Horn, from the Philadelphia area, called it “especially exciting to see the exotic animals.” She labeled their visit a “rare experience” and that it was “good to have such a place to come to” in northcentral Pennsylvania.
When Bechdel found out that Brumbaugh and Horn had decided to come visit his zoo instead of spending their money to go out and eat lunch, he asked them to come into his house for a moment. They left with a box of cookies.
Visitors to the zoo will notice quite a variety of beautiful trees on the grounds, such as sycamores, mulberry, magnolia, pine and willow. Bechdel planted most of them himself.
“You know, raising trees isn’t the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I thought at first that you just planted them and let them grow, but they have more problems than you can shake a stick at.”
Now 75, Bechdel claimed, “The zoo is what keeps me going.
“But, you don’t get any younger,” he said. “Fences need repaired, and handling everything is getting to be more and more difficult. I guess someday it’ll have to be sold.
“I’ve been busy all my life,” he said. “And, I’ve always been lucky — had more luck than anybody else I know — best wife in the world, best kids, with me on a tractor from the time they could walk, a darned good life, without any real money at all.”