A Massive, Abandoned Zoo Is Reborn in Catskill
The Catskill Game Farm experiences a rebirth as a campground, event space, and upstate destination.
Photo by Andy Milford
Did you know that Catskill was once home to a zoo?
For over seven decades, families ventured to Greene County to visit the more than 2,000 animals that roamed free at the Catskill Game Farm. Yet when the property closed its doors in 2006 and former owner Kathie Schulz had to find a new home for the abundance of animals onsite, controversy crept onto the grounds.
The Humane Society filed a complaint that during the farm auction (see here, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States) in October 2006, Schulz sold some animals, including bison, wisent, deer, yaks, and elk, to buyers connected to canned hunts. Although dealers were required to have licenses to purchase animals at the auction, the concerns voiced by the Humane Society and local advocacy groups focused on the fact that said buyers were afterward able to sell animals to hunts or zoos if they so chose.
Part of the controversy surrounding the auction also tied back to Schulz's ex-husband, Jurgen, who owned an exotic-animal import business in Texas at the time. Prior to that, the farm received a number of citations during annual USDA inspection reports, including excess accumulation of manure in January 2004, inadequate water drainage in August 2004 and 2005, and spoiled food and food debris in August 2005.
Schulz, whose father, Roland Lindemann, founded the farm in 1933, also sold a large number of animals to private collectors or to representatives from animal sanctuaries both in the Hudson Valley and across the country. Local activists behind the Coalition for Catskill Game Farm Animals, for instance, purchased quite a few four-legged creatures, including aoudads, iguanas, pygmy donkeys, llamas, and guinea pigs. Most notably, Boom Boom and Jack, the two white rhinos at the farm, went to a veterinarian representing Marc Ecko, the founder of rhino-logoed fashion line Ecko Unlimited.
Photo courtesy of The Old Game Farm
After the auction, the property fell into neglect and disrepair until Ben and Cathy Ballone purchased it in 2012.
Since the purchase, the Ballones worked to make the property, now dubbed The Old Game Farm, as safe as possible so people can explore the nostalgic site once again. With the help of donations, the grounds re-opened to the public for self-guided tours in 2014. Two years later, onsite camping launched through Tentrr for guests who want to "glamp."
In 2017, the Ballones borrowed money to convert the old “Giraffe House” into an inn, now called The Long Neck Inn. According to Cathy, the inn is scheduled to open by spring 2019, with calls for reservations beginning in January.
The "Giraffe House" is being converted to The Long Neck Inn. Photo by Andy Milford
As for the design of the inn, the main level of the barn sticks as close to the original as possible. The front doors serve as shutters to create a more energy-efficient interior, while marks on the walls where giraffes use to rub their heads remain for nostalgia. Rooms will be named after animals that used to live on the property and will be decorated with the animals themselves in mind.
Once the inn opens to the public, Cathy hopes to focus on events and weddings at the property. The onsite initiative will act as something of an extension of Cathy’s Elegant Events, the event-planning company she began in 2011.
“A lot of couples search for unique, unusual, and historic places to get married,” says Cathy. “That's why The Long Neck Inn is an ideal venue for couples looking to break the traditional banquet hall norm.”
Looking forward, the Ballones are already brainstorming their next endeavor, the $1.5 million conversion of the remaining property into an RV park and campground. For this, the couple hope to work with investors to create a space that will be a destination for locals and visitors alike.
“What sets this property apart from other campgrounds is the immense amount of space we have here,” Cathy explains.
The Old Game Farm grounds / Tentrr
The plans focus on preserving as many trees and as much of the preexisting infrastructure as possible to give guests an outdoor experience that embraces the history of the property. The theme of preserving the space's history continues with the naming of roads after animals, such as Giraffe Way and Rhino Road.
The Ballones want the camping experience to be fun, but also educational for children and their families. They hope to periodically host guest speakers, mostly former employees of the farm, to give tours and explain in further detail the zoo's history and timeline.
The couple are also in the process of partnering the campground with local organizations to create programs to connect people back to nature.
“We want to teach kids how to safely and properly pick mushrooms, make maple syrup, and harvest honey, along with other nature-based workshops,” Cathy notes.
Even though the property will no longer operate as a zoo, it will continue to embrace its historic origins as the Catskill Game Farm. When the Long Neck Inn opens, for instance, a section of the building will be dedicated to old memorabilia from the game farm. In the future, the Ballones plan to have a museum on the property to display vintage photos and mementos from the zoo to keep its history alive for years to come.