Catoctin Wildlife Preserve

A Hidden Gem in Frederick County

Article by Kristen Wojdan

Photography by Kristi Lynn Photography

Originally published in Frederick Lifestyle

We spent some time with Laurie Hahn, General Curator and Director of Animal Welfare, at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve, and discovered an exciting world of animals from around the globe, right here in Frederick County. 

How did Catoctin Wildlife Preserve begin?

The original two-acre property was a snake farm that began in 1933, by Gordon Gaver. He had different types of snakes and reptiles. It was a roadside attraction that he did for many years. He enlisted help from Mr. Richard Hahn in the early 1960s. Mr. Hahn was a college professor who had a passion for animals, especially reptiles. When he found this place, he wanted to be part of it. 

After a few years, Gaver became ill and passed away. His wife didn’t want to continue the caretaking of the two-acre snake farm, but Mr. Hahn did!  

Mr. Hahn and another gentleman went in together to purchase the park. The other gentleman only lasted a year and then bowed out. So, Mr. Hahn became the owner of the two-acre snake farm in 1966.

At that point, the Hahn family began living in the cabin on the property (which is still here and is currently inhabited by a zookeeper). They began adding different types of animals and land. From 1966 through today, we have grown from two acres to about 100 acres and have added hundreds of species. We currently house around 1200 animals.

Those are our roots. We’re still family-run. We all have our boots on the ground every day. 

What are some of the most interesting and unique exhibits?

One of our star zoo ambassadors is Magia, a black jaguar. It’s rare for a jaguar to be black. Mostly, jaguars are yellow with black spots and some with white on them. Magia is all black with black spots. It’s really hard to see the spots, unless he is sitting in the sun, because of the slight variation of the black color. He’s really beautiful. 

Magia is an impressive jaguar. He’s almost 200 pounds, so he’s quite a big boy, even for a jaguar. He’s very interactive with people. He was born in captivity and came to us from another zoological facility. He had always been around people. He’s very playful and gorgeous, so he would probably be our star.

I think one of the things people do not realize is that most of the animals in zoos have grown up in captivity and have a bond with people. They love to sit and watch us through the window just as much as we love to sit and watch them.

For the unique, we have the fossa (pronounced FOW-suh or FOO-suh). When people hear the word “fossa” and read the sign, many say, “What in the world? How have I not heard about this super cool animal?” 

Fossas are the apex predator from Madagascar. They are their own unique species because they evolved on an island and they had nowhere else to go or outside influence. They became extremely unique and specialized for living on that island. 

I lovingly call them “monkey-dog-cat-ferrets” because they are so uniquely put together. They have the nose of a dog, the face of a cat, the body of a ferret and the tail of a monkey. They can actually run through the trees just as fast as lemurs. Lemurs are their favorite food in the wild, so they have to be fast to catch a good meal. 

We have produced two litters here at the preserve; one in 2014 and one in 2017. We are one of about five [zoological facilities] in the country that has successfully produced fossas. So, we’re happy we are contributing to their species here in captivity in order to spread the news about their plight in the wild. Madagascar is being deforested very quickly.

We also support Rainforest Trust, a non-profit organization based in Virginia. They own hundreds of acres in Madagascar in order to protect lemurs and fossas.

What do you want people to know about Catoctin Wildlife Preserve?

First of all, we’re bigger than you think! The number one comment we get from visitors is, “I had no idea that this place was so big, so nice and had so many animals from all over the world—unique animals that I have never seen before.” Most people are just blown away once they visit.

Secondly, we are not a roadside attraction anymore. We are a zoological facility, answering to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), our accrediting board and The Zoological Association of America. In other words, we’re all grown up now. We deal with zoos across the country–breeding, trading animals, sharing information and more. We have conversations and interactions with very large zoos, like the San Diego Zoo.

What are some popular attractions at the park?

Every day at the park, we have “Keeper Talks.” One of them is with Magia, our black jaguar. We provide an opportunity to talk to the keeper and see Magia being extremely active and enjoying his enrichment, which we change up every day (a ball, a barrel, a scent, catnip, cinnamon, coffee, etc.) This is exciting to experience and a great opportunity for photos.

We also have a yellow-headed vulture that is glove-trained so that we can bring him out and guests can get a closer look at him. They can get some great photos and learn about the smallest vulture from South America.

We also offer an alligator encounter, where guests get to meet and pet a baby alligator. They can grab a photo, talk to the keeper and ask questions about the big alligators in the alligator bayou.

In addition, we also have parakeet feedings. Guests can stand in the middle of a flying rainbow of 700 parakeets, which is pretty amazing.

We have tortoise feedings with our African spurred tortoises, commonly called sulcata tortoises. Our biggest is about 125 pounds. You can grab some lettuce from our outpost shop and hand-feed them.

We have two petting zoos: the Nigerian dwarf goat petting zoo located in our African section of the park and the International Petting Zoo with animals from Arabia, South America, Europe and Asia. You can hand-feed and pet them. 

And, of course, our 20-acre safari, with about 100 animals, including: bison, camels, watusi cattle, zebras, ostriches and eland antelope. There are a few feeding stops along the way as you venture into the animal paddox and interact with those big animals from the safety of an army truck.

How is the park organized?

It is arranged geographically. The Madagascar section features the lemurs and fossa. The Australian section features the emus, dingas and large kangaroos. The African section features the safari, lions and green vervet monkeys, Nigerian dwarf goats and the bongo antelope. The South American section features the jaguar, spider monkeys, iguanas and chachalacas (a rare breed of bird).

It’s set up geographically in order to educate people and introduce them to different parts of the world. In our exhibits, we try to create a feel that’s natural but that also speaks to that part of the world.

And, we still house venomous reptiles. That has been a lifetime passion of Mr. Hahn. As a matter of fact, he founded the International Herpetological Society with Hood College in 1971. 

We have venomous animals from around the world, including some species that are rarely seen. The Mangshan viper is absolutely beautiful; so beautiful that you don’t think they are real.

We also feature Australian reptiles and giant reptiles. We have an 18-foot, reticulated python that weighs close to 200 pounds, named Bertha. 

We are very glad to be here so that children can get up, close and personal with the animals.

Why are you a preserve and not a zoo?

We are a preserve. We preserve the land and the animals that were here when we got here. This area is not being developed. We’re not a concrete zoo. We have dirt and gravel paths, we leave the trees and natural waterways and are doing our best to exhibit animals that naturally exist here. We are also preserving the nature that is here. And, we are also preserving endangered species from around the world and doing our best to share those with people. We aid in conservation efforts with other zoological facilities and donate to non-profit causes that are working around the world to preserve them. That’s the cornucopia of why we are a preserve and not a zoo.

What are you looking forward to for CWP?

I’m excited about bigger and better exhibits. We are constantly constructing new exhibits, not just for new animals, but for animals that are here and need more space. For example, we have lions here that are about a year old and about 150 pounds. They will be about 400 pounds in two years, so they will need more space. That exhibit is planned and I’m excited about it.

I’m excited about the drive-thru safari, where people will be able to drive their own vehicles through the safari and interact with the animals. That will be a really cool feature that will be added to the park. It’s under construction and we hope it will open in the near future. 

I look forward to attracting and educating more of the people in the Frederick community. We have a lot to offer. Catoctin Wildlife Preserve is a diverse, complex, educational park with beautiful animals and scenery. Catoctin Wildlife Preserve is a hidden gem that we want people to know about!


You can support CWP by adopting an animal. 

When you “adopt” one of the Preserve’s animals, you not only contribute to its care and feeding for one full year, but also support important education and conservation programs at CWP. 

Adoptable animals include: American alligator, camel, Galapagos tortoise, Hyacinth macaw, Indian peafowl, king cobra, meerkat, olive baboon, pygmy, goat, sloth, wolves and zebras

You get a certificate of adoption, photo and stuffed animal and recognition on the website.

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