As Rising Sun residents mourned this week the closure of a beloved local attraction, the 24-year-old Plumpton Park Zoo, records show that inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had recently notified owner Ed Plumstead, 82, of nearly two dozen potential violations of federal regulations governing animal health and safety.
Among the 21 concerns cited in a June 29 report, an inspector wrote that seven animal enclosures needed repair, a structure housing six bison lacked proper access to water, a monkey cage had insufficient ventilation and a tiger was living in a keeper's residence on the property.
"That's a lot of [problems], and we take them seriously," said David Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which inspected the facility on Telegraph Road again Thursday. "I don't know the details of the [Plumpton Park] situation, but running a zoo is a huge and complex responsibility. Sometimes the best-intentioned [owners] just get overwhelmed."
The report called for all the repairs to be done by July 21 — improvements that would cost thousands of dollars at a facility that has long relied almost exclusively on admission fees and donations.
At his home on the grounds Thursday, Plumstead, who founded the facility on his family's farm in 1986, said only that he was "too upset to talk." But friends said the duties involved in caring for a menagerie of hundreds of animals had weighed heavily on him in recent years and that Plumstead had been seeking a buyer.
"I think he hung in there as long as he could," said Gordy Johnson, manager of Jon's Exotic Pets in Rising Sun, which sold the zoo mice, rats and crickets as feed. "Ed is a caretaker, a giver by nature. He never wanted to be in the spotlight. For him, it was just, 'come look at my animals.' "
Johnson called the closure a "sharp stab in the stomach to Cecil County," where more than 50,000 people, many of them children, visited the zoo annually some years.
As local residents expressed sadness over the closure, their emotions seemed equal parts nostalgia and fondness for Plumstead, who grew up on the 110-acre farm and has long been a prominent, if reserved, member of the community.
Armed with a fine arts degree from Yale University, he set out years ago to illustrate children's' books, only to instead found a company that made architectural models. He later bought, restored and found buyers for a number of historic homes in the area.
Plumstead began collecting animals during the 1960s, when he adopted two white deer he spotted on a roadside. As he added more over the years, an increasing number of neighbors came by for a look. In 1986, he turned his menagerie into the Plumpton Park Zoo, which he named after a park in an old English poem.
The zoo was popular with families and a destination for abandoned or otherwise unwanted animals. At one point, more than 300 animals from 80 species lived there.
"It was a lovely, quiet place; not like the bigger zoos in the city. I started taking my daughter there when she was 3, and she's 28 now," said Janice Whiteside, a waitress at Sue's Restaurant in Rising Sun, her voice cracking a little.
Joe Bearden, a retired antiques dealer, agreed. "It will be missed. All my kids volunteered there. My 24-year-old son still says one of the highlights of his life was getting to pet [the zoo's] white Siberian tiger," he said.
Volunteering at the zoo in Rising Sun created some of the most colorful memories of Erica Rawlings Johnson's life — from the peacocks that always strolled onto Telegraph Road, to the crabby mountain lion she loved, to the monkeys she had to tend.
"It was a very friendly, nice place to go," said the Bel Air resident, who worked there as a high school student 14 years ago.
As recently as last year, Plumstead had hired two new caretakers, including a former circus worker, Sloan Damon, and an expert with farm animals, Bernadette Amoroso, according to the Cecil County Observer. Neither could be reached for comment.
County tourism director Sandy Turner said Plumstead told her last week that he was working with regional zoos, including the Catoctin Wildlife Reserve and Zoo in Thurmont, to find "not just homes, but good homes," for each of the animals, a process he said would take months.
Catoctin spokeswoman June Bellizzi said the zoo's director, Richard Hahn, is a longtime friend of Plumstead's and is already helping him find homes for the animals, mostly at other zoos around the country or at local farms. She didn't know whether the Catoctin facility would take any in.
Sacks, the USDA spokesman, said his agency would monitor the animals' welfare until it had ascertained that the zoo had officially closed. The USDA monitors the welfare of animals that are exhibited in public.
If and when Plumstead surrenders Plumpton Park's exhibitor's license, Sacks said, the animals would fall under local jurisdiction. "At that point, he could keep any of them he wanted to as pets — as long as the state or the county [don't] prohibit it."
At the zoo site, the entry gate was locked on Thursday, the familiar sign taken down. But in town, at least one friend expected him to give up exotic animals. "That zoo has been Ed's labor of love," Johnson said. "I think Ed's tired. If anyone has earned a break, he has."