By Nicolette Sblano, Sabrina Sucato, and Raphael Beretta
Update: The Old Game Farm will soon become an all-in-one resort with onsite attractions and entertainment in the Hudson Valley. Read on to learn more about its history and exciting development in the region.
Did you know that Catskill was once home to a zoo?
For over seven decades, families ventured to Greene County to visit the more than 2,000 animals that roamed free at the Catskill Game Farm. Yet when the property closed its doors in 2006 and former owner Kathie Schulz had to find a new home for the abundance of animals onsite, controversy crept onto the grounds.
The Humane Society filed a complaint that during the farm auction (see here, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States) in October 2006, Schulz sold some animals, including bison, wisent, deer, yaks, and elk, to buyers connected to canned hunts. Although dealers were required to have licenses to purchase animals at the auction, the concerns voiced by the Humane Society and local advocacy groups focused on the fact that said buyers were afterward able to sell animals to hunts or zoos if they so chose.
Part of the controversy surrounding the auction also tied back to Schulz’s ex-husband, Jurgen, who owned an exotic-animal import business in Texas at the time. Prior to that, the farm received a number of citations during annual USDA inspection reports, including excess accumulation of manure in January 2004, inadequate water drainage in August 2004 and 2005, and spoiled food and food debris in August 2005.
Schulz, whose father, Roland Lindemann, founded the farm in 1933, also sold a large number of animals to private collectors or to representatives from animal sanctuaries both in the Hudson Valley and across the country. Local activists behind the Coalition for Catskill Game Farm Animals, for instance, purchased quite a few four-legged creatures, including aoudads, iguanas, pygmy donkeys, llamas, and guinea pigs. Most notably, Boom Boom and Jack, the two white rhinos at the farm, went to a veterinarian representing Marc Ecko, the founder of rhino-logoed fashion line Ecko Unlimited.
After the auction, the property fell into neglect and disrepair until Ben and Cathy Ballone purchased it in 2012.
Since the purchase, the Ballones worked to make the property, now dubbed The Old Game Farm, as safe as possible so people can explore the nostalgic site once again. With the help of donations, the grounds re-opened to the public for self-guided tours in 2014 (with pre-registration required). Two years later, onsite camping launched through Tentrr for guests who want to “glamp.” There are four camping sites on the grounds, two of which were added in 2019. The glamping setups are winterized, allowing for stays in every season.
In 2017, the Ballones borrowed money to convert the old “Giraffe House” into an inn, now called The Long Neck Inn. The inn opened in August 2019 and features five guest rooms.
As for the design of the inn, the main level of the barn sticks as close to the original as possible. The front doors serve as shutters to create a more energy-efficient interior, while marks on the walls where giraffes use to rub their heads remain for nostalgia. Rooms are named after animals that used to live on the property – think Elephant, Giraffe, Rhino, and Zebra – and decorated with memorabilia and the animals themselves in mind. The fifth room, titled the Menagerie Room, changes theme each year to provide a unique experience for repeat guests. With each stay, the Ballones donate a portion of the proceeds to conservation efforts connected with each animal.
Designed with sustainability in mind, The Long Neck Inn utilizes environmentally friendly cleaning products, along with shampoos and conditioners. Nearly all of the lights are LED, and appliances are Energy Star-certified as well.
Initially, the Ballones hoped to tackle the $1.5 million conversion of the remaining property into an RV park and campground. For this, the couple hoped to work with investors to create a destination space for locals and visitors alike.
“What sets this property apart from other campgrounds is the immense amount of space we have here,” Cathy explains.
The plans focused on preserving as many trees and as much of the preexisting infrastructure as possible to give guests an outdoor experience that embraces the history of the Hudson Valley property. The theme of preserving the space’s history continues with the naming of roads after animals, such as Giraffe Way and Rhino Road.
More recently, however, they chose to list The Old Game Farm for sale with the hope of passing it along to someone who appreciates and understands the history of the space.
“Everyone has been incredibly supportive and excited for our efforts,” enthuses Cathy. “We have been really pleased with the overwhelming reception we have received in the community.”
In late-2020, Hudson Valley investor Sid Blauner purchased The Old Game Farm, recognizing the massive potential to bring jobs to Greene County and reinvent the former zoo.
“I figured that we would be the bridge between past and future: honoring the legacy of the game farm, being the first private zoo in America, with 10 million visitors over the 70 years it was open, and the future, being agritourism, environmental tourism, and adventure tourism,” Blauner explains.
His mission soon evolved into enormous plans that will see The Old Game Farm transform into a comprehensive four-season resort that retains all of the zoo’s relics and history while taking full advantage of the surrounding natural resources. Catskill’s terrain is perfect for mountain biking, while its open fields are ideal for archery, miniature golf, and cross-country skiing and its nearby creeks, rivers, and lakes are pristine for fishing. And that’s not to mention the vast size of the property, which allows for outdoor events like concerts and festivals.
Part of Blauner’s vision includes paying respectful homage to the past while supporting positive environmental change in the Hudson Valley. When animals return to The Old Game Farm, they will not be held in the cages of a zoo, but instead will be free to roam in a sanctuary setting.
Blauner and his investors have already acquired several animals, including two white Hereford cattle, a broodmare, and a horse that they saved from being put down. They also plan to raise goats on the property that can help reduce the deer tick population in the region.
“We’re going to bring it back to family farming. We’re going to bring back goats, we’re going to bring back cows; they’re all sanctuary animals and the focus is going to be on indigenous species,” Blauner notes. “And we’re going to have young people learn how to raise them.”
Committed to a better future in the Hudson Valley, the team at The Old Game Farm will only put animals in pens, roosts, and stables at night when they might be exposed to mountain lions, hawks, and other natural predators in the region.
Though a native of Westchester for several years, Blauner considers himself and his investors “city folk.” To ensure that his ideas stem from the community in which he is doing business, Blauner has partnered with the Johnsons and the Bishops, two families that have lived in the Hudson Valley area for decades. The Johnsons run Kenco Outfitters and will handle the development of the 3D tactical archery course, while the Bishops will lead the way for mountain biking.
The Old Game Farm will, in essence, become a hub for local businesses to set up shop in the Hudson Valley. More than a dozen Greene County businesses are being considered to join the developing food and beverage program, with Catskill Mountain Bakery already confirmed to join the operation. The Long Neck Inn, the luxury bed and breakfast inside the former zebra barn, will continue to operate, with the possibility of expansion in the future.
“Where other people saw what [the Ballones] were doing as ‘the dog,’ I saw it as only the ‘tail.’ Two hundred incredible mountainside acres of beautiful nature offer endless possibilities,” Blauner observes. His plan includes turning many of the remaining animal stables into additional units for getaways. “We went to the town board to ask for variances to turn the giraffe stable into a six-room bed and breakfast. The equine stable would be for a family of four or five, and the goat shacks for couples.”
If the approvals all go through from local government, the adventure park component of The Old Game Farm will open as early as the fall of 2021.
Blauner isn’t working toward just the revival of The Old Game Farm, but of the entire county that surrounds it. He notes that, because the hospitality industry took a major dive in the area, increasing job opportunities for local residents can hopefully spark a comeback. To get the ball rolling, he recruited Ian Palmateer to oversee a critical part of the Hudson Valley destination’s operation.
Prior to joining The Old Game Farm team, Palmateer maintained a connection to it through his wife, Starlyn, who worked as a housekeeper for the Ballones. He worked as a corrections officer for many years, so his new role as the Environmental Conservation Officer and Director of Security for The Old Game Farm is a natural fit.
“I think the story of The Old Game Farm represents a bigger story about the Hudson Valley, and COVID supercharging the move upstate. And, you know, it’s a movement and I don’t think it’s going to stop,” Blauner says.
Above all else, the most meaningful part of the ownership for Blauner is the opportunity to bring to light old memories and foster new ones.
“We’re going to try to create something that’s authentic and experiential, and that people are going to leave saying ‘wow.’ People that remembered going as a kid will now take their children and, in 30 years, they’ll take their children hoping to pass on those same memories,” Blauner enthuses.