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Eleven years ago, a couple took over a floundering zoo in Cecil County. Now it’s a regional destination.

RISING SUN — The sunlight bore down over northeastern Maryland, and the humidity was close to 90%, but the heat did nothing to hinder what’s become a typical day at the Plumpton Park Zoo.

Children from New Jersey, Virginia and nearby Baltimore County lined up to feed bamboo leaves to Jimmie, a 26-year-old giraffe who is the northeastern Maryland zoo’s star. Souvenirs flew off the shelves in the gift shop, housed in a grist mill built in 1734.

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In a tree-shaded enclosure, Cheryl Lacovara, the zoo’s director and unofficial den mother, used a few taps to coax Sid, a two-toed sloth, from his sleeping place, then laced her fingers through his outstretched claws.

“You start working with these animals as babies, and you build a bond that never goes away,” she told a gathering of visitors.

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It has been 11 years since Lacovara, a former pharmaceuticals company project manager, and her husband, Nick, an attorney, took over Plumpton Park, a family attraction that had fallen into such disrepair that its owner closed it following a disastrous government inspection. Since then, they’ve led a revival.

A zoo from which most of the 170 animals had to be relocated is now home to more than 200, from tigers and gibbons to porcupines and parrots. Jimmie once lived in a cramped and drafty barn; now he has the run of a custom-designed, 5,700-square foot giraffe center.

Attendance, which had sunk to about 20,000 per year, has grown to five times that; a community has rallied to the cause, and visitors to the zoo from across the region are patronizing other businesses in nearby Rising Sun.

“Nick and Cheryl have taken a place that had fallen apart and reestablished it as a destination,” said Allen Authenreath, a former resident and town official.

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A tiger at the Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun.
A tiger at the Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The zoo, like most in the country, is not without critics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, cited structural issues by the dozen in the first few years, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which opposes animal captivity, has filed complaints.

But the zoo has earned six straight spotless write-ups in USDA annual inspections and is licensed by the federal government as small private zoo.

“That is no roadside zoo,” said Karl Kranz, vice president for animal programs and chief operating officer of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. “The Lacovaras have systematically lifted everything up.”

In many ways, the story of the Plumpton Park Zoo — named after an old English poem about lords and ladies in a park — is a lesson in the complexities of a demanding field.

More than 30 years ago, the late Edward C. Plumstead bought two fallow white deer for his family farm. The businessman and antiques collector then built a herd of more than 100. When visitors began stopping by, he peppered in primates, bison and bears, and a local landmark was born.

But later in life, the zoo’s challenges overwhelmed him. As his health deteriorated, Plumstead retired to Florida and hired a series of caretakers. His creation declined.

A 2010 inspection by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service turned up 21 violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Among the problems: enclosures lacked ventilation and a tiger was living in a zookeeper’s house. Plumstead announced he was shutting down.

It was a good thing some other animal nuts lived not too far away.

One of the alpaca at the Plumpton Park Zoo looks over the fence of its enclosure.
One of the alpaca at the Plumpton Park Zoo looks over the fence of its enclosure. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The Lacovaras had a menagerie on their farm in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, and even tried at one point to turn it into a zoo. They’d often brought their kids to Plumpton Park.

Hearing of the closure, they called Plumstead, thinking they might offer an animal a home. He invited them over to talk. To their shock, he asked them to take the place over lock, stock and barrel. They can’t fully explain what happened next.

“The meeting lasted an hour,” Nick said. “By the end of the conversation, we’d somehow agreed to reopen the zoo.”

‘We Bought a Zoo’

The plot of the 2011 film “We Bought a Zoo” centers on a family that purchases an estate where the price has been lowered because it has a zoo. The ensuing calamities almost bring down the movie family.

The Lacovaras say it’s scary how much the film was like their early experiences.

The day they met with Plumstead, a caretaker burst in to announce Jimmie had toppled a fence and was roaming the grounds. Nick helped contain the giraffe, drove to town, bought materials, reinforced the barrier, and helped herd the 3,000-pound animal inside.

They soon learned that every roof leaked; no one had veterinary records of the animals, and even Jimmie had been so neglected that one hoof had overgrown and curled in on itself, causing laminitis and a painful limp.

Veterinarian Herbert Paluch, director of the Cape May County Park and Zoo in New Jersey, stopped by in those early days to check things out. He was frank with his longtime friends.

“You do know you’re starting from nothing, right?” he asked.

It all sparked second thoughts for the Lacovaras, now committed to a 20-year, $600,000 lease. But instead of dwelling on the problems, they stuck to what they could control. “We just drew a line in the sand and got to work,” Cheryl said.

“That is no roadside zoo. The Lacovaras have systematically lifted everything up.”


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Those who know the Lacovaras say a rare mix of qualities made the recovery possible: down-to-earth personalities that fit the community, fundraising and social media creativity, determination, and a knack for winning support.

“If you’re an animal lover, even if it’s just dogs or cats, and Nick and Cheryl get to talking with you, they’re the kind of people who don’t have to ask for help. You just end up saying, ‘What can I do?’” Authenreath said.

Paluch, now a Plumpton Park board member, worked with other vets from larger zoos to examine the animals, prescribe treatment, and offer advice on habitats and preventive care, all at a discount.

Contractors pitched in to reframe buildings, patch roofs and upgrade wiring. Locals following the progress on Facebook volunteered. Special events drew crowds. And the Lacovaras enriched habitats, tracked animals’ health with software they could monitor via smartphone, and shared tales of the creatures online.

The Plumpton Park Zoo's Jimmie, a 26-year-old giraffe, feeds on tree leaves held by Nick Lacovara. The zoo in Rising Sun, Md. opened in 1986 but was closed in July 2010 due to violations. The zoo was reopened three months later and now Nick and Cheryl Lacovara run it and are leaders of the nonprofit organization that operates it.
The Plumpton Park Zoo's Jimmie, a 26-year-old giraffe, feeds on tree leaves held by Nick Lacovara. The zoo in Rising Sun, Md. opened in 1986 but was closed in July 2010 due to violations. The zoo was reopened three months later and now Nick and Cheryl Lacovara run it and are leaders of the nonprofit organization that operates it. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“Nick and Cheryl completely re-energized Plumpton Park Zoo, and that energy has rallied a community around them,” Rising Sun Mayor Travis Marion said.

The work included growing the zoo population, down to 60 by the time they began. They made contacts in small U.S. zoos and prioritized rescues, traveling themselves to collect the animals. They landed Miracle, a red Siberian tiger with vision problems who had been rejected by its mother, and white Bengal tiger Alexis from a closed zoo in Wisconsin. Quillbert, a porcupine, had been hit by a car in Texas. Hope, a once-abandoned brown bear, surprised everyone by giving birth to twins.

They’re on a roster of more than 50 species, including two rarely seen in North American zoos: black-backed jackals, natives of South Africa found in only four U.S. zoos, and binturongs, fl

at-looking, tree-climbing mammals designated as vulnerable or endangered in parts of their native Southeast Asia.

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Gentle Jimmie, meanwhile — now loping more freely, thanks to a five-hour operation on his hoof — has so charmed members of the visiting vet team that they show up to treat his smallest ailment, working at cost. It’s one reason he’s outlived the average life span of the endangered reticulated giraffe by eight years.

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As p

art

of their dedication to environmental causes, the Lacovaras donate half the annual fees from what guests pay to feed Jimmie, or $5,000, to giraffe protection in Africa.

Cheryl Lacovara interacts with three-year-old Sid the sloth at the Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun. She has raised Sid since he was eight months old.
Cheryl Lacovara interacts with three-year-old Sid the sloth at the Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun. She has raised Sid since he was eight months old. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Camels and cougars

Dozens of guests, many of them children, wandered Plumpton Park on a summer Sunday, stopping to talk to Thor, a two-humped camel, laugh with a pair of siamang gibbons, and marvel at Hope and her offspring, Ringo and Frankie, as the bears played with a keg provided as a pool toy.

The 22 employees, including seven zookeepers, and half a dozen volunteers patrolled its 25 laid-back acres, taking tickets and animal temperatures, laying out feed and answering questions.

Nick stopped to chat with a man from Delaware who wanted to know how alligators like Randle, a zoo mainstay, differ from crocodiles, and he got a five-minute talk on the subject.

As smoothly as things seem to be working, it’s not all easy now.

The Lacovaras have invested most of their life savings in the nonprofit organization, Plumpton Park Zoological Gardens Inc., a total well into the six figures. They’ve quintupled the annual operating budget to nearly $1 million, but the numbers pale next to the balance sheets of the zoo’s larger cousins.

A few commenters on Plumpton Park’s social media accounts say its wood-and-wire enclosures appear dated or too small for the animals; Nick responds with posts with which he seeks to explain that every pen exceeds USDA space minimums and pointing to the zoo’s clean record with authorities.

Zoo experts agree Plumpton Park has come a long way since the Humane Society of the United States, a lobbying group that says on its website that it “seeks to end ‘entertainment’ that abuses animals” criticized it in a 2013 report titled “Maryland’s Fatal Attractions.”

“Obviously, being so small, they don’t have a lot of spare cash for capital improvements. So, they make improvements as they can,” Kranz said.

HSUS published its report shortly before pushing legislation in the General Assembly that would have banned private ownership of big cats for all but the biggest zoos. Nick said he lobbied the group and lawmakers to help forge a compromise that exempted all federally-licensed zoos, including Plumpton Park.

Cheryl Lacovara, from left, and husband, Nick, talk with Plumpton Park Zoo visitor Shashank Beerla of Bear, Delaware, and his 5-year-old daughter, Sannidhi. The Locavaras are running the nonprofit Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun.
Cheryl Lacovara, from left, and husband, Nick, talk with Plumpton Park Zoo visitor Shashank Beerla of Bear, Delaware, and his 5-year-old daughter, Sannidhi. The Locavaras are running the nonprofit Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Meanwhile, the popularity of the 2020 Netflix series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” heightened scrutiny of zoos while giving many viewers the impression it’s safe to handle big cats. That’s an idea the Lacovaras have to rebuff regularly, telling visitors it’s too risky to offer up-close interactions with the felines.

The COVID-19 pandemic represented a major hit, forcing the zoo to close for a month last year. A fire last summer in the reptile house killed six animals.

The Lacovaras offset their COVID losses with a drive-through program that sold out for weeks, as well as a loan-turned-grant of about $85,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. As many as 100 volunteers are helping repair the fire damage and meet other needs.

And the co-directors, still commuting 55 miles from New Jersey, continue pressing to grow.

They recently landed Nicolai, a four-month-old cougar, as a potential mate for long-timer Nicole, 7. Funding has been raised for a 15,000 square-foot tiger enclosure that would expand further onto the property’s 117 total acres.

And in a classroom at the Edward C. Plumstead Giraffe Conservation Center, a $600,000 facility opened in 2017, Nick said a recent test shows that Jimmie’s 7-year-old mate, Annabelle, acquired in 2018, might be expecting. Further tests are needed to confirm or rule out a pregnancy.

A new giraffe, Nick said, wouldn’t just help replenish the species; it would prolong the legacy of a beloved creature who has seen the best and worst of times at Plumpton Park. He glanced through a window at Jimmie, who was interacting with a line of kids.

“We’d take that as a good omen,” he said.

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