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Couple breathes new life into abandoned zoo

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    The entrance to the former Catskill Game Farm.
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    The former giraffe house which will be renovated into an inn on the site of the former Catskill Game Farm.
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    The interior of an abandoned building on the site of the former Catskill Game Farm.
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    One of many abandoned buildings on the site of the former Catskill Game Farm.
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    Inside an abandoned stable at the former Catskill Game Farm.
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    Contributed photo A spiral staircase in an abandoned building on the site of the former Catskill Game Farm.
January 26, 2018 11:48 am

CATSKILL — One of Greene County’s treasured landmark destinations will be transformed into an entirely different animal.

The site of the former Catskill Game Farm in Kiskatom will be reinvented and reopened sometime in the fall, owners Ben and Cathy Ballone said Thursday.

Cathy, who grew up in East Durham, and her husband, Ben, purchased the 150-acre site in January 2012 — nearly six years after the animal park shut its doors. The couple saw potential for good opportunities, she said.

“It was too good of a deal to pass up,” Ballone said.

Visitors have been allowed to conduct self-guided tours of the site for four years. In 2017, the Ballones borrowed $450,000 to convert the site’s 5,500-square-foot giraffe house into a five-room inn called the Long Neck Inn. The inn is scheduled to open in the fall. The building also housed birds and other animals during the winter months.

“We are expecting to have four-and-a-half full-time job equivalents once we are open,” she said.

One of the inn’s five rooms will be named the Giraffe Room, inspired by the Game Farm’s most famous resident — April the Giraffe — born there in 2002, Ballone said.

“By far, the biggest boost we were given was that April the Giraffe was born here,” Ballone said. April garnered global attention on social media as the world waited anxiously for the birth of her calf at an animal park near Binghamton last year.

Some of the buildings will be refurbished, Ballone said, and she plans to keep as much of the property in the condition it has been in since the 2006 closing.

Photography classes under the Abandoned America brand, which focuses on photographing abandoned historic places, have also been held there.

“I imagine we have to be one of the only abandoned zoos where we allow people to stay,” Ballone said. “It’s an interesting niche market to be in.”

The site will also offer glamping, or upscale camping, sites run by the company Tentrr. The sites consist of a woodstove, a grill, a picnic table and a canvas tent with a queen-sized bed on a pressure-treated platform, Ballone said. Tentrr markets camping to people who don’t have space to store tents and sleeping bags.

“It’s above sleeping on the ground in a tent,” she said.

The Ballones are taking their proposal to the Catskill Planning Board for approval of the luxury camping and inn. A public hearing will be held on the Ballones’ proposal at the February planning board meeting.

“We’ve received a lot of really wonderful support,” Cathy said.

The prospect of a new lodging and entertainment option is exciting for the town, Councilman Jared Giordiano said.

“We’re very excited when any new lodging opportunities come before the board,” Giordiano said.

Maintenance and upkeep of the property costs about $75,000 a year. Cathy said trees have fallen, buildings on the site have collapsed and dangerously jagged fence posts had to be removed.

“There’s stuff always happening that needs to be dealt with,” she said.

Trespassers and a case of stolen camping equipment have also plagued the site. Signs have since been posted to warn people they cannot enter the property without registering to conduct a self-guided tour.

“People don’t realize that there are people here,” Cathy said. “If we do see you, you will get caught.”

A long-term goal is to open a museum on the site, but in the meantime, the Long Neck Inn will exhibit memorabilia from the former Game Farm’s history.

When the site opened in 1933, it was recognized as the first privately owned zoo in the United States. At the height of its popularity, the Game Farm was home to 2,000 animals.

“They were supplying a lot of animals to other zoos — historically, it’s something that should not be forgotten,” Cathy said. “My husband and I really love history. We feel like we’re doing the right thing with the property.”

The Ballones said they have no intention of making the site a zoo again, but a venue for weddings and municipal gatherings is possible.

“We’re working with other businesses to come up with creative ideas to bring people in,” Cathy said.

To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.