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WILD KINGDOM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rising Sun -- Ed Plumstead spends each evening preparing a meal of fresh sliced yams, grapes and bananas for two gibbons.

Five professional zoo keepers take care of the rest of the 300 animals at his zoo here in the green hills of rural Cecil County. But Mr. Plumstead saves for his own delight the evening meal with Pug and Squeaky.

Why the apes, and not the giraffe that leans its towering head down to give him an air kiss when he visits? Or the fox that yaps and chases its own tail in excited pleasure when it hears Mr. Plumstead's voice? Or even Iggy the iguana, who waggles his orange body and grins whenever Mr. Plumstead scratches his scaly cheek?

Mr. Plumstead shrugs, then starts laughing just thinking about the apes' dark, clever faces, and the way they show off by leaping around their pen.

"The gibbons are like little people. They are funny."

Mr. Plumstead, thin, bespectacled and a young-looking 67, wears frayed jeans and a holey wool sweater as he takes a visitor on his evening rounds. Like all the pens here, Pug and Squeaky's compound looks homemade: A rough wood-and-wire outdoor play area is connected to a small room. Mr. Plumstead lets loose a rope connected to a hatch in the middle of the pen, cutting off the apes from the rear of the room. He lays down the raw fruits and vegetables, then retreats and pulls the door back up.

"You have to be on your toes," he explains.

"They'll pull your hair out by the roots. They'll bite your hand if they can."

Just like people.

The story of Mr. Plumstead and his Plumpton Park Zoo is about how animals and people -- including Mr. Plumstead himself -- sometimes hurt those attempting to help them.

Shortly after he turned 40 acres of his family's farm here into a zoo nine years ago, Mr. Plumstead was thrust into the center of a rancorous political dispute in Cecil County -- a dispute that became so serious that the county government shut down the zoo for six months last fall and Mr. Plumstead in turn filed a $5 million lawsuit against the county.

Mr. Plumstead, a shy, private man sometimes described as a modern-day Dr. Doolittle, was forced to launch a public campaign to save his animals.

In April, he decided that the only way he could save his zoo would be to end the zoo's 25-year lease with the county and give up the public subsidy, both of which were at the heart of the debate.

Now, Plumpton Park must do what few zoos around the country have to do. Unlike big-city zoos from Baltimore to San Diego, Plumpton Park must cover its operating costs -- about $15,000 a month -- through admission fees alone.

Mr. Plumstead's decision to go private represents a victory for his critics in Cecil County, who have long contended that the zoo is a luxury this cash-strapped county -- known for its high unemployment and poverty rates -- can ill afford.

But it is distressing for the 50,000 children and parents who visit the zoo each year. For many of them say the zoo has been one of the few affordable activities in a county whose other major attractions are a designer outlet mall, and boating access to the Chesapeake Bay.

To survive, Mr. Plumstead has already raised his prices by $2 for adults and 25 cents for children. The new prices are $6 and $3.

Though still less than the Baltimore Zoo's $7.50 and $4, the price increase hurts some of Plumpton Park's biggest fans.

Julaine Weinsek, 14, of Bel Air, started going to the zoo when she was 10, and especially liked the reptile room because she has pet lizards.

"I liked it because it wasn't that expensive and wasn't crowded," she says.

She was so upset when she heard from her teachers at Southampton Middle School about the zoo's troubles that she and several other students decided to use their lunch hours to make bookmarks, which they sold for $1 apiece to benefit the zoo. The students sent the zoo donations totaling $2,200 this spring.

The kids' vote of confidence "made me feel great," says Mr. Plumstead. It also buoyed him through the recent political storms.

Mr. Plumstead, who builds architectural models for a living, is neither a professional zoologist nor a politician. With wry, self-deprecatory humor, he admits he has made some painful mistakes in handling both animals and people in the last few years.

"My family has always said I am stubborn," he concedes.

But he believes that the county officials who insisted he give up public aid in order to reopen the zoo also are stubborn. They are making a mistake, he says, because they are hurting a zoo that has educated and delighted thousands of children and adults.

"The county is out of the zoo business," he says bitterly. "And maybe they are out of a zoo, too."

****

Mr. Plumstead never intended to start a zoo, anyway.

True, when he was young, Mr. Plumstead, like many kids, longed for a menagerie of exotic pets. Once, on a visit to relatives in Maine, he met a man who had a pet bear, and pleaded with his parents for a bear of his own.

But his parents insisted he stick to a mundane collection of horses, turtles and the like at their Cecil County farm. And soon, another dream captured Mr. Plumstead's imagination. Influenced by his family's friendship with the painter Andrew Wyeth, who lived a few miles north in Pennsylvania, Mr. Plumstead decided to make art, not nature, his life's work. He studied painting and sculpture at Yale University, and book illustration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But after deciding that art didn't pay well, he took a job making models of buildings.

He moved back to his family's home to start his own model-building firm, and through the late 1950s and 1960s, his business flourished. He built models for Charles Center and other Baltimore landmarks. (His model of contemporary downtown Baltimore is still on display in the Convention Center.)

Then, a 1966 trip to the Eastern Shore changed his life. He passed a yard by the side of the road containing two all-white deer, like those European noblemen release on their estates.

Next to them: a "For Sale" sign.

He brought the fallow deer home, and as his herd grew, neighbors started driving their children by to watch what they thought were reindeer.

The sightseers soon became a traffic hazard, so Mr. Plumstead moved his deer to a field hidden from the road.

But people used to watching the deer started wandering over his land to find them.

In the meantime, Mr. Plumstead had slowly built up his menagerie by buying buffalo, llamas, and barnyard animals from nearby farmers.

The struggle to keep the collection private ended in 1986, when Mr. Plumstead and his partner, Sam Conner, figured it would be better to control the growing stream of trespassers by opening the menagerie for public viewing on weekends.

The crowds grew, and before long the partners figured they may as well start charging admission.

So they got a zoo license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In filling out the application, Mr. Plumstead remembered an old British poem about lords and ladies wandering amongst the fallow deer in "Plumpton Park" and figured that would be a good name.

Finally, he was free to indulge his childhood dreams: Although he had no training in caring for exotic animals, he bought a zebra from another zoo for $2,500.

He figured taking care of zebras would be easy. He knew how to take care of horses. And zebras were just striped horses, weren't they?

No. They weren't.

"For some reason I thought they were neat," he says, mocking himself. But, he quickly learned, "they remove body parts. They are untamable."

The zebras aren't the only ones who remove body parts.

***

One afternoon in 1991, Mr. Plumstead was cleaning up after one of his llamas, named J. R., after the mean-spirited tycoon in the television show "Dallas." He heard something galloping toward him. He turned and ran. But it was too late. In front of horrified visiting children, J. R. chomped a big chunk of flesh out of Mr. Plumstead's left leg. Mr. Plumstead spent several days in the hospital, and the ensuing infection nearly cost him his leg.

Still, he kept at the job, helped by books such as "Diseases of Exotic Animals" and "Management of Wild Animals in Captivity."

And the zoo's collection kept growing, often literally by accident. For example, police cleaning up an auto accident found one of the cars was ferrying an alligator. They offered it to Mr. Plumstead if he'd get it out of the car for them.

People tired of caring for exotic pets dropped off snakes, parrots and even bears.

Neighbors who found injured wild animals, such as hawks and foxes, brought them to Mr. Plumstead for recuperation.

And Mr. Plumstead kept buying new animals, including giraffes and camels.

One reason for the continuing acquisitions: The zoo was becoming increasingly expensive to run, and Mr. Plumstead needed new exhibits to attract more paying customers.

In fact, money became an all-engrossing concern in 1987, when his liability insurance bill skyrocketed. Mr. Plumstead turned to the Cecil County commissioners for help.

Their solution: The county would lease the zoo from Mr. Plumstead, and include it in the county's insurance policy.

In response to Mr. Plumstead's further requests for help, the county also freed him from property tax payments and donated money and labor to the zoo. At the subsidy's peak, county officials estimate, it totaled about $30,00 a year.

But soon some Cecil County residents were grumbling about the county aid. The lease signed by the county made it technically responsible for operating and maintaining the zoo, although Mr. Plumstead and his growing staff did most of the work.

The county's payments to and liability for a privately run zoo became an issue in the 1990 campaign for county commissioners. And when the newly elected board of commissioners took office, it tried to renegotiate the zoo's lease. But Mr. Plumstead said no.

"We didn't want to renegotiate unless we got something better or longer. They wanted something worse," he explains.

Thus began a five-year political fight.

Although the zoo subsidy was a tiny share of the county's $66 million-a-year budget, a small group of critics started showing up at commissioners' meetings to insist that the county stop supporting the zoo, which was still, technically a private enterprise.

While some critics opposed the zoo subsidy on philosophical grounds, others opposed it for personal reasons, says Ed Sealover, county administrator during the early 1990s.

"Some people accused Mr. Plumstead of empire-building," he says. "And some people just didn't like Mr. Plumstead or the zoo."

Worsening the dispute, he adds, may have been Mr. Plumstead's sometimes clumsy handling of the controversy.

Mr. Plumstead would occasionally play into the critics' hands by demanding that the county make expensive repairs, Mr. Sealover says. And he alienated many of those who tried to negotiate a resolution.

"There is no compromising with Ed," Mr. Sealover says.

In the summer of 1994, Plumpton Park was confronted with its most severe crisis: The county sent out an electrical inspector who found dozens of code violations at the zoo, including the use of long extension cords between cages.

Saying that the repair costs were too expensive, the commissioners ordered the zoo closed in the fall.

Mr. Plumstead attempted to save his zoo by suing the county and "running a great PR campaign," Mr. Sealover says.

Mr. Plumstead warned newspapers and television and radio stations that some animals might die because he was running out of money and feed.

Appalled schoolchildren throughout Maryland and Delaware sent donations, and mailed letters to county officials begging them to save the zoo.

In a move that partially alleviated the controversy, a new set of commissioners elected last November agreed to give Mr. Plumstead money to feed the animals while he found an electrician to make repairs.

The repairs were finished by March, but the commissioners refused to let the zoo reopen. They said they would relent only when Mr. Plumstead also dropped his lawsuit and terminated the 25-year county lease.

Commissioner Oakley Sumpter says he used the continued closure as a tool to force an end to the lease because he believes the county government can't afford the unlimited liability implied by the contract.

His grandkids, he says, "love the zoo, and so do I. . . . But I have to look at the best interests of the 75,000 people of Cecil County."

Among the poorest residents in the state, Cecil Countians nevertheless have the state's seventh-highest tax burden -- a burden the commissioners are struggling to reduce. The commissioners have already cut the county budget by 5 percent this year, Mr. Sumpter notes.

***

To save his zoo, Mr. Plumstead agreed to the county's terms in April, accepting a $75,000 payment for ending the county's lease and dropping the suit.

But instead of ending the controversy over the zoo, Mr. Plumstead's decision stirred it up again.

He took the settlement money himself, and didn't direct it to the nonprofit board that raises funds for the zoo.

That infuriated many of his allies, who noted that many of the zoo's suppliers were owed money.

Four of the zoo's seven board members, including Chairwoman Sandra Didra, quit the night the details of the lease payment were released.

Although she doesn't believe Mr. Plumstead or Mr. Conner are getting rich off the zoo, Ms. Didra said she was dismayed because the decision gave more ammunition to critics who charged that donations and subsidies might be diverted from the zoo to Mr. Plumstead or his business.

"I have cried and cursed" Mr. Plumstead's occasional blunders, which hurt his good will in the community, she said.

She said sometimes wondered why the quiet, retiring Mr. Plumstead opened his property to thousands of visitors each week. But she came to believe that he simply wants to share with others the delight of the animals.

"He really cares for the animals. . . I think deep down inside there's kind of a Dr. Dolittle" in Mr. Plumstead, she says.

Mr. Plumstead says he's distressed by the rancor that has developed around the zoo.

He concedes that he's been stubborn and perhaps impolitic at times, but he insists that those were minor mistakes that don't justify the way county officials consistently broke promises they had made to him.

"I was dealt a very dirty hand," he says, adding that he doesn't understand why county officials want to make things difficult for a zoo that does much good for kids and grown-ups for miles around.

The budget-cutters' arguments never made any sense to him, he said, because at its peak the subsidy totaled about 25 cents per county resident. Meanwhile, the zoo brought thousands of tourists to the county.

He says he took the settlement money himself because he has lent the zoo hundreds of thousands of dollars that he feared he would never get back otherwise. He also points out that his model-building business suffered during the recent real estate recession.

"I need it," he says of the money.

He hated raising admission prices, and possibly stopping some families from visiting the zoo, he says, but adds that if he didn't get more admission money, no one could visit the zoo because he'd have to close it and sell the animals.

"We've got a zoo clinging on by its fingernails," he says.

L Sometimes Mr. Plumstead wonders why he bothers with the zoo.

"I am physically stretched," he says. "I am beyond retirement age. . . . I get tired" in the 12-hour days at the zoo.

But there are still moments that make all the hassles, all the angry telephone calls, all the embarrassing publicity worthwhile.

Not long ago, a dozen peacocks wandered up to the giraffe and fanned their turquoise and gold tails, creating a moment of breath-taking beauty, he says.

Then, he stops himself before he waxes too poetic and shifts instead to stories about how the blue and green parrots, who shout "hello" to visitors, have nipped his fingers when he has fed them grapes.

He'll keep the zoo for now because, he says in an understatement accompanied by a shrug: "It's not boring."

KIM CLARK is a reporter for the Sun.

WHO'S IN THE ZOO

If you go to Plumpton Park Zoo, you'll see everything from alligators to zebras, including:

Alligators: 2

Buffalo: 11

Cougar: 1

Emus: 12

Fox: 1

Giraffe: 1

Iguanas: 2

Lemurs:2

Marmosets: 3

Ostriches: 1

Peacocks: 19

Zebras: 2

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