Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Walking and talking with the animals

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Nathan Madonna, 3, of West Chester, Pa., feeds a fallow deer at the Deer Haven Park Mini Zoo in New Midway, Md.
Getting up close and personal with the animals at Deer Haven Mini Zoo means children can lock eyes with a lion and be licked by the blue tongue of a buffalo rather than observe them from the glass-paned or moated distance of many other zoos.

Deer Haven’s four acres combine exotic animals such as the capybara (a semi-aquatic South American rodent) and coatimundi (a small, social mammal native to South and Central America) with a petting zoo featuring goats, alpacas and more familiar farm fare. Sometimes the two overlap, creating moments where a child passes blades of grass to a lemur, collects shed peacock feathers and hand-feeds deer.

The zoo is the ‘‘expensive hobby” of retired postal worker Brad Gerwig and his wife, who are the only employees and who also live on the property off Route 194 in New Midway in Frederick County.

Gerwig began caring for found wildlife as a boy. Squirrels and raccoons gave way to deer about 30 years ago.

He allowed various non-paying visitors to pet and feed the deer at his home until he was told such a practice required a license. Once he had one, Gerwig said it just made sense to expand to include other animals.

He reads magazines for help in caring for his menagerie, which currently includes two black bears, a 14-year-old lioness and arctic foxes.

The zoo is not well known — some weekdays there are no visitors, Gerwig said, and a busy Saturday will see about 40 — but there are regulars as well.

Bob Kurtz of Hanover, Pa., visited with his 4-year-old daughter and friends on a recent day when they missed the departure time for a planned trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Kurtz has visited Deer Haven a half dozen times over the years.

‘‘It’s just a neat little place to come,” he said, pointing out the shaded location and lack of crowds.

Jennifer Mills of Frederick, on the playground with her two children and niece, has a season pass and visits every week or two.

‘‘When you come a lot you get to see the babies grow and all,” Mills said. ‘‘It’s a nice tradition.”

The animals are mostly in pens or concrete-floored cages and visitors walk by only feet away. There is no pavement so muddy paths can be expected.

‘‘They should have a natural habitat,” Gerwig said of his more exotic guests. ‘‘But when you do you can’t see the animals.”

Animal noises such as the cawing of parrots, braying of donkeys and gobbling of wild turkeys are everywhere.

In addition to the animals, there is a small gift shop, picnic tables, soda machine and playground. The Gerwigs ostensibly sell buckets of feed corn for $1 each but often give them away.

Gerwig said the mini zoo has yet to make a profit but ‘‘I enjoy it or I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Deer Haven Mini Zoo

Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily April to December and on occasion through the winter.

Tickets are $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for children and free for under 2.

Group discounts and season passes are available.

For more information visit www.deerhavenminizoo.com.