An inconspicuous roadside sign and a wilting vinyl banner are the only subtle indications that one of the area’s most unusual attractions is at 7621 Lakeport Road. That address is home to The Wild Animal Park, Chittenango’s one-stop seasonal destination for an intimate look at more than 50 exotic animals.
“People get here, and they don’t expect it,” says Jeff Taylor, 31. “When you drive in, you don’t expect it to open up and see how big it is back here.” Taylor, the owner of the 2-year-old park in his home’s spacious back yard, is attempting to carve out a place for his fledgling zoo by defying expectations.
“What’s unique about this, as opposed to the city zoo, is that I do animal shows where we interact with the animals,” says Taylor. “You don’t just walk around and read signs.”
One of those is the Gator Pit, which features a viewing deck surrounding a sunken habitat that holds five alligators. They made their debut this season and quickly became a park highlight.
“Every time I do a show, the whole deck is full. I do questions and answers and I pick them up and walk them around so the kids can see them up close. Especially with the Gator Boys on TV, the little kids get super-excited,” says Taylor, referring to the popular Animal Planet program.
The skills he honed in his landscaping business Nature-scapes came in handy when building the park. Taylor designed all of the enclosures and other structures himself, choosing to give the park a more rustic, country aesthetic as opposed to the concrete look found at some other zoos.
“For the last five years, I put everything into this. Every extra minute I’ve had, I’ve been working nonstop,” said Taylor. “Family members and friends have helped. Building a zoo is not a small project.”
Family and friends still provide the necessary helping hands Taylor needs. They solely comprise his small staff of eight or nine on any day that the park is open. They work in the snack stand and even help with the animals.
The process of creating the 12-acre Wild Animal Park hasn’t been without its hardships. In 2009, Taylor’s wallaroo Bandit broke loose from the property and triggered a local search that drew national media attention. Sadly, Bandit was found dead two months later, apparently hit by a car along the Thruway.
“That happened when I purchased the property,” Taylor recalls. “I was in the process of moving and someone let him out.”
He has taken special precautions to make sure such an unfortunate accident would never happen again. “The whole area is surrounded by 8-foot-tall fences,” says Taylor. “The only way out is the way we came in.”
Taylor affirmed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation regulate the Wild Animal Park. Even though he deems their regulations “super-strict,” he makes sure to follow them to the letter. “Part of my regulations is that I have to have a vet on call,” says Tyler. “I’m trying to make sure I’m doing everything the way it’s supposed to be done.”
However, an accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is not on his to-do list. The AZA, a non-profit organization that promotes the welfare and educational advancement of zoological parks and aquariums, requires all accredited parks to meet professional standards for animal welfare, wildlife conservation, veterinary care, safety and more. AZA accreditation is not mandatory by law: Fewer than 10 percent of the approximately 2,400 USDA licensed animal exhibitors are currently accredited. Locally, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo is currently accredited; the Utica Zoo is not.
Taylor dismisses the importance of the AZA to his business. “It’s basically a country club where you pay millions of dollars to join,” he notes. “My animals, they’re content. They’re well-cared for.”
AZA spokesman Steve Feldman says that accreditation holds merit with a park’s patrons and industry peers. “AZA accreditation is like a Good Housekeeping seal,” says Feldman. “If a zoo is not accredited, I can’t speak to the quality of their care procedures.” He states that membership dues are “reasonable,” and are determined by a sliding scale on a zoo-by-zoo basis.
Taylor confirmed that business at the Wild Animal Park is going well this season, which runs every weekend until it closes on Oct. 28. He is especially excited for his “White Tiger Welcome Weekend at the Wild,” which will take place at the park over Columbus Day weekend. The celebration will revolve around the arrival of the park’s newest member of the family: a white Bengal tiger cub named Oden. “It will be the only white tiger on display in the whole New York state,” he says with pride.
Taylor is proud to bring people’s attention to a quiet place like Chittenango. “Last week we brought in over 1,000 people,” he notes. “They’re going to spend money at the ice cream stand. They’re going to spend money at the gas station in town. The town doesn’t have anything like this, so hopefully it’ll continue to bring people out to our area, because it’s a nice community.”
The Wild Animal Park is open weekends through Oct. 28 from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $7, children 2 and younger get in free. For more information, call 727-5587 or visit thewildpark.com.