$1 million set as goal for Catoctin


THURMONT -- The privately operated Catoctin Mountain Zoo Park is campaigning to raise $1 million to buy, among other things, the property it now leases for its menagerie of 200 animals.

During the zoo's "Lend A Hand, Sponsor A Foot" campaign, donors can purchase an honorary square-foot tract at the 32-acre zoo on U.S. 15 south of Thurmont, near the popular Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain Park.

"Our goal is to become a well-known zoo," said Gerry Strachan, president of the zoo board. "We want to be on the same footing as some of the other well-known zoos in the area. Without owning the property, we can't get some of the money we need to move toward that goal."

Mr. Strachan said potential donors have declined to donate money because the zoo leases the land. The land is owned by a former zoo director and founder of the zoo, which began in the 1960s as a snake farm.

The Catoctin Mountain Zoological Society, a nonprofit group formed in the early 1980s to manage the zoo, wants to buy the leased land and 28 acres more, 60 acres in all, Mr. Strachan said. The acreage would provide for expansion and off-exhibit area for animals.

Some of the money also could be used to establish an endowment to help the zoo meet operating and building costs, said Mel Danner, zoo director since January.

"A lot of folks think we're a state, federal or locally funded zoo," Mr. Danner said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. We rely on member and board donations and admissions, most of which we get in a six-month period. We have to survive 12 months."

About 80 percent of the zoo's $640,000 budget comes from ticket sales and the rest comes from concession and gift shop sales and memberships, Mr. Danner said. The zoo employs about 40 people, including seasonal workers.

"I think it's unusual for a small zoo like us to even exist," Mr. Danner said. "Most zoos are supported by municipalities or endowments. We're doing it the hard way."

Fund-raising has become important for zoos across the county, even those supported by local, state or federal governments, said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Bethesda. Building community support through membership and corporate sponsorships also is important, she said.

"Most zoos have a local support group to help fund them," she said. "To get the interest of the people nearby is really important. The Catoctin zoo may be a small zoo, but there's a lot you can do with 32 acres."

Mr. Danner said the society, which has about 1,000 members, also is looking to increase its roster and to better market the zoo. It also is reaching out to the community with animal education programs.

The Catoctin Mountain Park Zoo is one of four in Maryland. The zoo attracts about 75,000 visitors a year, mostly from central and Western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. The other zoos are in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and near Rising Sun in Cecil County.

The zoo also has been sprucing up buildings, grounds and an sign and fence visible from U.S. 15, Mr. Danner said.

"We're trying to make a behavioral habitat zoo and not a concrete jungle like a lot of zoos," he said.

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