For many years I had driven by the story-high stone mountain on Route 4 in Goshen and wondered "What is that?"
And while I would also catch a glimpse of a sign proclaiming "Action Wildlife," there never seemed to be any animals around as I quickly drove by. I really thought the sign was a remnant of an attraction that had seen its demise.
Curiosity finally got the better of me, and pleasantly I discovered that Action Wildlife is operating and prospering. It offers a convenient, affordable and entertaining touchstone of sorts for adults and children who have forgotten that there are some things Kindles, iPods, iPhones, etc., just can't recreate.
The 116-acre former dairy farm that now houses a non-profit animal kingdom with 32 species is a labor of love for founder/owner and well-known Torrington businessman Jim Mazzarelli who opened it about 17 years ago. He wanted a place where children and families could learn about animals, not from a book or a screen, but by touching, seeing, smelling and experiencing.
It is that simple.
"I remember going to Catskill Game Farm when I was a kid and we had nothing like that around here," said the 70-year-old married father and grandfather, recalling the former zoo/amusement park in New York that closed in 2006. "I wanted a farm, not a zoo, a place where kids could see things they had only seen in books, where they could feed the animals instead of only reading about what they ate, and I wanted it to be open, clean, and laid back, a place where they could spend hours just watching and enjoying ."
So I decided it was time to visit. I had promised six tech-addicted children, ages 3 to 12, that there would be a shared summer outing, and Action Wildlife met the criteria providing animals, picnic area, playground, museum, petting zoo and a "safari" drive-through. It was a definite score for this Nana.
For starters the open areas offered an assortment of animals — American bison, elk and red deer to the zebra, zabu and zonkey all meandering about fenced in fields as we drove up the lengthy driveway. While you can drive the two-mile, marked "safari" route, we found ourselves stopping more than once to get out of the car to get a closer look at animals including an emu, assorted fallow deer, Japanese Sika Deer, yak, water buffalo, belted Galloway and llama.
"We aren't surprised kids like it so much," said farm manager Mike Maston. "The farm is so big and everyone feels free because they can run around and be kids and watch the animals. They aren't hunched over machines," he noted. "It's an interaction you just don't get with a machine and the whole experience prompts interaction not only for children but adults, too."
And that was our experience. First stop was the museum, a relatively new addition to the complex, featuring dozens of "stuffed" animals, both exotic and native to North America.
"I was a game hunter and never took anything I didn't feel the man upstairs wanted me to," said Mazzarelli. The museum is a learning experience in itself, featuring an authentic and very detailed diorama with lifelike animals seemingly frozen in action in their native habitat. We were looking everywhere because the floor space and walls were transformed into wooded areas and jungles, with a big cat above us poised to spring, an antelope on one wall in full flight, mountain goats climbing a mountain, a snow leopard, the rare markhor goat as well as an impressive bison that displayed to welcome those who come inside. Matson, who was the longtime owner of Hartford Taxidermy created the animals that are actually mannequins covered with the skins from animals from Mazzarelli's various hunting expeditions.
A smaller diorama in the museum, that also boasts a waterfall, features native animals including foxes and bears. Plaques in front of each display provide interesting facts and descriptions.
There is also an exploration center with a variety of "hands on" games and puzzles all pertaining to animals. All simplistic entertainment by today's standards, but my grandchildren all wanted to touch each of the "what is this " boxes or take a "hands on" quiz on the names of baby animals.
Next Up: Food and Petting Zoo
A picnic lunch at the pavilion and and some time on the playscape was the perfect pause before heading to the "petting" zoo. Visitors can feed a select number of animals including an assortment of goat "kids" who quickly captured the attention of all my kids.
"They're so soft," and "look at this one, he likes me," they commented. They purchased dry food and carefully fed the goat kids who gently pushed to the front of their stalls for some petting and a snack.
"Kids are awed by animals, I don't care how sophisticated the culture has become," said Mazzarelli, who owns Torrington Distributors Inc, a company that manufacturers commercial aircraft seats. "And honestly, the biggest thrill for me is when I see kids who perhaps have never seen these kinds of animals before or they get the chance to feed them and are overwhelmed because they are so excited."
School field trips and camp trips are a staple at the farm. There are guided hayrides for large groups and seasonal events for the public including a summer carnival and a fall pumpkin patch and ride.
And while the entertainment value is the draw, Mazzarelli and Matson are sticklers about the care of the animals. There are special diets, special accommodations, exercise for all the charges and specially heated barn housing in the winter for those not accustomed to the cold.
As we left, I was the only one grabbing for my phone when we got back into the car after a five-hour visit that honestly flew by. The rest of my party wanted to talk to each other about what they had seen. "He smiled at me" said the 3-year-old who was sure one of the "kids" had a crush on her. The point of this experience — they were happily talking to each other and not one electronic device was turned back on during the entire 45-minute drive home.
And there is no app for that.
ACTION WILDLIFE , 337 Torrington Road (Route 4) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and open Labor Day. Fall hours begin after Labor Day and are Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Action Wildlife is also open Columbus Day. Closed in winter. Calling ahead is recommended. All hours are weather permitting. It is handicap accessible. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under. Season passes are available. Information: 860-491-9191 or actionwildlife.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now