Baby Boom

brown and black Wilson football

Catoctin Wildlife Preserve Welcomes Furry, Feathered, Even Scaly Newborns 

 By Gina Gallucci-White and Photography by Turner Photography Studio 

In baby form, even snakes can be adorable, or at least a little less creepy. Take the Everglades rat snake. As its name suggests, this non-venomous, constrictor reptile, also known as an Eastern rat snake, is found mainly in Florida. Fourteen babies were hatched at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve in early April. 

On this cold spring morning, one of the baby rat snakes finds warmth in a small draw-string bag tucked in a jacket pocket of Chuck Forro, head reptile keeper for the Thurmont zoo. Forro pulls the snake out of the bag to show a visitor.

“The funny thing is, Everglades rat snakes are bright orange and red and their babies come out looking like this (a grayish color with some red patches),” he says, holding it. “These are absolutely wonderful snakes to have around your house or your yard, believe it or not.”

Uh, huh.

The zoo had a clutch of eggs last year, too. When the snakes become adults, Catoctin Wildlife Preserve will trade with other zoos. “This is the beginning product,” Forro says as the tiny snake wiggles through his hands before being placed back into the bag. “Would you like to see the end product?”

He again reaches into his jacket, this time pulling out a large, lumpy pillowcase-like bag that holds the tiny snake’s father—a five-foot long adult. Adult rat snakes can grow up to 6 feet long. 

He really said wonderful for the house or yard?

The newborn snakes are among several new reptile and mammal residents of the zoo that are part of the annual spring baby boom. Many of these animals are now on display for the general public to see.

Laurie Hahn, general curator and registered veterinarian technician, goes to an incubator and pulls out an emu chick that hatched this same morning. She even has the blueish-green shell, each half about the size of a baseball. This emu is less than a foot tall and can just fit in Hahn’s hands. Gestation times for emus vary from 45 to 50 days; adults reach up to 6 feet tall and are considered among the world’s largest birds.

On this day, the wildlife preserve is awaiting another dozen eggs set to hatch. This number has dropped significantly over the years for the flightless birds. “For the last three or four years their production has slowed down,” Hahn notes. In years past, there have been as many as 75 chicks hatching. Other zoological sites in the Mid-Atlantic region are seeing similar declines, but no one is exactly sure why.

The emus born at the preserve will be placed in the safari section of the zoo, where guests can see them alongside ostriches, zebras and American bison.

On Easter weekend, the zoo debuted five baby turkeys for public view. The turkeys are being kept in an area traditionally housing tortoises because the mesh fencing is smaller. Once fully feathered, they will be moved to their permanent home in the peacock exhibit that also hosts an adult turkey. The young turkeys will first be placed in a fenced-in corner of the exhibit. “[It is] just so they can get used to each other, seeing each other and there is no full contact and nobody can get beat up or hassled or bullied,” Hahn says.

Over at the Sulawesi macaque enclosure, there are two youngsters with a couple other expectant mothers on site. Once born, they will stay at the zoo with more than a dozen other macaques as they are considered a critically endangered species.

“There is a social hierarchy in primate groups,” Hahn explains. “If it is a lower-ranking female, she is going to hold on to that baby and that baby is going to hold onto her for longer than if it is a higher-ranking female. She has nothing to worry about because she is the big cheese and nobody is going to mess with her baby or she is going to mess with them, but a lower-ranking female doesn’t have as much leeway so they hold onto them longer.”

The two babies are 6 weeks old, which is when they start to venture away from mom. As they grow in confidence, they will wander more and more. Guests will soon be able to get a better look as a deck is being added to the enclosure.

Three Nigerian dwarf goats were born in early April with another mother goat due soon. The staff is able to plan when the kids are born by only putting the males and females together at designated times. “We certainly don’t want to be having young goats live outside [in the winter cold],” Hahn says. “They are acclimated to outside but being born soaking wet in the middle of night in the middle of winter is not what we are going for, so we plan it that we will have a baby boom right now while the temperatures are decent and the babies are nice and small once we reopen.”

The babies are born off-exhibit and put into a stall at a barn with their mothers so they can bond. Staff make sure the kids bellies are full and they are getting all the nourishment they need. Mothers and kids get several days of bonding before joining the large herd onsite. These goats usually grow to less than 2 feet tall and weigh around 35 pounds as adults.

Each year, zoo staff pick one goat to hand-raise so he or she can become an animal ambassador and meet patrons at educational encounters and birthday parties. Mary Ellis, head zookeeper, says the goats “make great companion animals. They make very good pets.”

While there are many babies at the wildlife preserve right now, there are also plenty of interesting adults to see, including red kangaroos, ruffed lemurs, vasa parrots, sun bears, koi, alligators and dingos spread across eight different sections divided by where the mammals, reptiles and amphibians call home. Safari rides traverse 25 acres of land with more than a hundred animals inside, including fallow deer, African antelope and mini donkeys.

In December, the preserve humanly euthanized one of their jaguars, Evita, after a series of health issues. She was believed to be the oldest jaguar in the country and lived at the zoo since 1997— when she was a year-and-a-half old after being born in Florida. The zoo is also in the process of expanding the jaguar exhibit, which continues to be the home for Magia, with the goal to add another in the future.

But for now, the babies on display are a great source of curiosity, but they won’t stay small forever. “[The babies are] like a ray of sunshine after winter and being closed and cold,” Hahn says. “[It is nice] welcoming people back to the park and having them enjoy the babies just as much as we do.”

Frederick Magazine