A clump of dried weed crushed under my foot as I stepped onto the split pavement of the Catskill Game Farm’s deserted parking lot. As soon as the door clicked closed, I heard a series of conversational meows, and a cat the size of a baby panther trotted towards me from the thicket he had been napping in.
I didn’t mind the notable volume of the cat because, for once, I was legally permitted to enter the place. My last attempt at an abandoned adventure resulted in some…unpleasantness…that I can’t legally talk about and I had to take down the article.
Cathy Bellone, the current co-owner of the Catskill Game Farm, offers self-guided tours of the place, and greeted me at the front gate. My assumption was the owner of an abandoned zoo would be an 86-year-old maniacal billionaire who strode around in a velvet bathrobe all day singing opera, so I was surprised when freckled woman in her 30s wearing a tank top emerged.
Cathy advised me to be cautious of inadvertently shutting the goats (there were goats) in the zoo’s buildings if I entered them, and told me to text her if I got lost. Even when people had the map, they sometimes got lost, Cathy said.
The cat was named Steve. Steve the cat and Grady the dog were Cathy’s incredibly sociable pets, and they accompanied me as I stepped into the zoo.
The Catskill Game Farm, owned by the Lindemann family, was the first privately owned collection of animals to be certified as a zoo by the United States Department of Agriculture. The zoo had thousands of animals at its peak, including baboons, antelope, camels, zebras, giraffes, and at least one elephant.
“The theory is that they actually purchased the property in ‘33 and started their collection at that time,” she said.
The zoo was a major attraction. Cathy said it hosted as many as ten thousand people a day, and she had gotten letters from past visitors hailing from South Korea, Italy and France.
You get a sense of the impact it had on the area when approaching the zoo on Game Farm Road. Peeling wooden billboards lean in from both sides hyping motels and restaurants, but many are now closed without the zoo to bring in crowds, and Game Farm Road is now rutted and purely residential.
Except for the Balliwick Animal Park. Don’t mix up the Catskill Game Farm with the Balliwick Animal Park.
The Catskill Game Farm closed in 2006, Cathy said. The animals were auctioned off in what I like to imagine was a pretty zany auction, and Cathy said many were bought by animal sanctuaries and zoos around the country. Others were bought for “canned hunts” — released into a confined area to be shot for sport. One rhino came to be possessed by the owner of Ecko Unltd, Cathy said, a clothing company which has a rhino for its logo. They might be singing opera to it right now.
Cathy, a wedding planner, said she and her husband are renovating the old Giraffe House into an inn and events space, and they are looking to open in July 2018.
The area around the inn will be spruced up, and a new entranceway built, but the owners are maintaining the original entrance and gatehouse, and for the immediate future, the zoo will maintain its abandoned aesthetic, Cathy said. Long-term, the couple was planning on revamping the area into a campground/RV Park.
I would suggest signing up to go when you can. Because legal fun is fun too.