In September 2006, I said goodbye to a childhood friend.
The friend was actually a place over an hour from Pittsfield. It was where a kid could see exotic animals, walk among peacocks, feed and pet goats and deer, ride a merry-go–round, rocket ships, trains and a fire truck, fill up on burgers and fries, buy souvenirs, and at the end of the day find a black card with "Catskill Game Farm" in orange letters wired to the family car's bumper.
What memories so many of us had of this dear friend, the closest big zoo to the Berkshires!
The Catskill Game Farm was scheduled to close its doors the month after my visit, and the owner would have to find homes for more than 2,000 animals including camels, giraffes, monkeys, lions, zebras, rhinos and many more of 150 species.
It was the first licensed, private zoo in America and the largest, too. As I walked around on a rainy weekday, there were less than two-dozen visitors, and being a school day, there were no children flocking to the aging amusement rides. Yet I was so impressed in how well the animals appeared and their habitats clean and comfortable.
But the times had changed and attendance was dramatically down from the '50s and '60s, when the park had as many as a half-million visitors in one summer season. Nowadays, kids are more into the adventure parks with their high-tech games, rides and interactive exhibits. Only public zoos (subsidized by tax dollars) located near large cities seem to survive.
The Catskill Game Farm owner, Kathy Lindemann Schultz, decided it was time to call it quits to stop the financial losses from the drop in attendance and the hassle of increased state regulations.
In the 1930s, Kathie's father, Roland Lindemann, a frequent visitor to Africa, began importing native species primarily to breed for other zoos. In 1933, his venture became the Catskill Game Farm that he expanded to 914 acres. However, the park only used 136 acres for public viewing in the beautiful woods of the Catskills.
In 1989, with the help of her two grown kids, Kathie took over the family business and operated the park for the next 17 years. In 2006, the 65-year-old operator was ready to retire from the seven-days-a-week job. Kathie wanted her children to have a more normal life than being wed to the park.
The state of New York was not interested in acquiring the seasonal zoo as upstate had experienced a decline in tourism and zoos needed subsidization to operate. So after 73 years the Catskill Game Farm would close and Kathie would auction off all the equipment and animals.
Animal rights activists feared that unscrupulous bidders would buy the stock to put in high-priced hunting preserves or to sell as exotic foods. For the most part, these sales did not happen, and Kathie also donated many of the rare animals to zoos.
In 2012, Ben and Cathy Ballone purchased 206 acres of the main park to open the Balliwack Ranch and Discovery Zoo replete with an equestrian center, horse trails, children's workshops and a small zoo. The giraffe barn is to be made into an inn for weddings and lodging. The couple has had a financial challenge trying to preserve parts of the park as we remembered it.
Most of us have little more than memories of this fun place. Perhaps some do have a family photo, a souvenir and maybe even one of those black bumper cards with "Catskill Game Farm" in orange letters.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to berkshirecarousel.com.