Movie Animals Find a Home in Preston County
By CYNTHIA McCLOUD ∙ For The State Journal
KINGWOOD — At Hovatter's Wildlife Zoo in Preston County, it's OK to feed the bears — just not from your picnic basket.
Different kinds of bears, a giraffe and African lions are among the 30-40 species of native and non-native wildlife on view at Hovatter's Wildlife Zoo. Hovatter's is a USDA-licensed facility that is also a sanctuary for some animals. It's unlike other places because visitors can get close to the animals and even feed about half of them.
"Kids like that they can get up close to the animals," owner Bryan Hovatter said. "You're within three feet of every animal on the property. You can't get that close to them at the zoo," he said. No outside food is permitted. Hovatter's sells fresh carrots, peanuts in the shell and other food in line with the animals' diets that are carefully regulated by federal guidelines. The zoo's monthly grocery bill is $8,000.
Visitors guide themselves along paths from each animal exhibit to the next enclosure. Signs at most of the exhibits tell where in the world the animal comes from, what it eats and other information.
Patagonian cavies doze in the sun. Camels give rides from noon-4 p.m. each day. An albino wallaby hangs out in a cloth pouch on the side of its pen. There are also emus, zebras and wolves, orange and white tigers, spotted and black leopards, turkeys and chickens, buffalo, ring tail lemurs, giant tortoises, monkeys and chimpanzees and more.
On a quiet night, when the leaves are off the trees, neighbors five miles away can hear the male lion roar.
Visitors to the zoo can have their photos taken with a younger lion. Lily the 3-month-old African lion cub roams around behind the counter in the souvenir gift shop. It's her temporary home.
She's destined to move to a zoo in Virginia.
But there is usually at least one baby animal for photo ops. The zoo is expecting a litter of tiger cubs this summer, and it's working on acquiring a baby giraffe soon to be born in upstate New York.
Tourism isn't Hovatter's only business.
The zoo regularly contracts out animals to other zoos or to filmmakers. Raising and supplying exotic animals to the movie industry is how Bryan Hovatter got into this business.
"Years back when I started this, opening a zoo wasn't a thought," he said. "I was selling movie production animals, doing this out back, while working in a coal mine.
"That's where a lot of our stuff goes now, to be trained for movies," Hovatter said.
Eventually he applied for a zoo license and opened to the public.
Depending on the weather, the zoo opens in mid-April and closes in the fall. The animals are kept in heated buildings in the winter.
Hovatter's gets its animals from a variety of sources.
"Some of them are USDA confiscation deals where people have had them and can't take care of them or shouldn't have them in the first place," Hovatter said. "Some we purchase from other zoos and some we breed."
He buys from licensed dealers and also gets retired movie production animals, such as the 18 1/2-foot-tall giraffe that played Zack in the Steve Carell movie "Evan Almighty."
Hovatter said he has learned to care for many species of animals through trial and error and by reading books and talking to other people in the business.
He has specialized knowledge to care for all the animals, especially the most dangerous.
Hovatter's Wildlife Zoo is at 291 Wagner Road, an out-of-the-way location shaded by trees and partly on a hillside. West of Kingwood, the county seat, Hovatter's is accessed by the twisty Herring Road off the main route, W.Va. 7. The way to the zoo is well-marked.
School groups come to Hovatter's for educational field trips and families can rent pavilions on the grounds for reunions, birthday parties and other occasions.
Hovatter's is open from noon-7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. It is closed Mondays, with the exception of holidays, when it opens from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission cost is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $8 for kids 3 to 12, and free for kids 2 and under. Price does not include sales tax.