Hovatter’s – The West Virginia Zoo

My family has held a timeshare at Lakeview Golf Resort in Morgantown, WV for decades. I celebrated my first birthday there, and this year, my 30th. During my late teens, college years, and through the late 20s, I hadn’t been down there with the family – but the past two summers, now having a family of my own, we’ve restarted the trip as an annual tradition.

While Lakeview is a decent enough place for golfing, there’s not much else to do there. When it rains, or if we’re simply not in the mood for a grueling round of difficult golf, we never know what to do for amusement. This year my wife took it upon herself to do some research. West Virginia’s “things to do” website informed her of the West Virginia Zoo.

You didn’t know West Virginia had a zoo? We didn’t either. It’s actually a privately-owned place called Hovatter’s Wildlife Zoo. And it is amazing.

As we drove the winding, limestone dust-covered roads through West Virginia forest to find the zoo, we started to joke about what kind of place we were going to find. The zoo was about a 30-minute hike from Cheat Lake, mostly via wooded, nausea-inducing roads.

“It’s probably going to be three pigs in someone’s backyard,” Laura said, after 20 minutes of driving through seemingly nowhere.

“I really have to use the bathroom when we get there,” I told her. “Hopefully Jeb or Betty cleaned out the crap bucket this morning.”

When we finally got within proximity of the zoo, the signs we saw weren’t doing much to quell our doubts. Pulling into the zoo’s entrance feels like you’re driving into someone’s backyard, aside from the presence of kangaroos.  The dirt/rock road leading up to the zoo empties into a parking lot big enough to hold a couple dozen cars, at most. When we arrived, there were only two others.

“So…this is a zoo, is it?” I said, pulling the umbrella strollers out of the back of the car, sticking the kids in them, and attempting to push them on the gravel surface.

But as the family walked from the cars to the ticket building, we quickly started to realize this wasn’t a normal zoo. I mean – that much was obvious already – but it wasn’t a normal zoo in the sense that the animals aren’t showcased as distant, wild objects the way they are at larger zoos. You’re not standing behind glass, staring at animals from 200 feet away, trying to locate them among their habitats. In fact, some animals aren’t behind glass at all.

As we bought our admission tickets, a baby llama wandered into the ticket building and kissed my wife on the face. A newborn tiger was wandering around behind the ticket counter, playing with another tiger cub like kittens on a living room floor. A pitbull/bulldog mix floated around the area, friendly as can be. It was like walking into your friend’s house, except their pet tabby was replaced with exotic animals. A peacock screeched and raised his feathers outside the window as we bought our tickets.

Now, one of the reasons we really wanted to go to this zoo was because their website advertised them having a baby giraffe. I adore giraffes greatly, and would never pass up an opportunity to see a young one. They grow so rapidly, it’s a keen thing to witness. But when we arrived at the zoo, a sign by the register offered something so magical, I couldn’t even process what I was seeing.

You can buy a cup of carrot sticks and feed the giraffes. FEED them.

I’m not even going to try and elaborate how awesome this was. The giraffes are positioned as one of the first animals you meet inside the zoo. They walk up to the edge of their pen and stare down at you with their big, majestic eyes. When you hold up a carrot stick, they shoot out their long, black tongues, wrap them around the carrot, and slurp it up. Their closeness is incredible. I pet their faces, got giraffe slobber all over my hand, and giggled with delight like a twelve year-old girl who just held a boy’s hand for the first time. We ended up getting more carrot sticks since one cup wasn’t enough, let the kids try feeding them, and recorded everything.

It wasn’t just the highlight of the day for me, it was one of the highlights of the year.

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The zoo has tons of monkeys, a bear, crocodiles, lions, lemurs, tigers, camels, boars (stinky!), hyenas, tortoises, and an amazing array of other exotics. Every animal is confined in spaces that allow you to get as close as is safely possible, making the experience so much more personal than at a larger-scale zoo. All the animals are kept just as far out of reach as they need to be, but close enough you can really get to know them, and interact. And the way harmless animals like llamas, ducks, dogs, and such just roam around with the public is really exciting.

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A few members of my family were given a tour by a great little guy named Aiden, who is one of the younger members of the Hovatter family. I think he said he was five. His enthusiasm about animals and the zoo was outstanding, and we enjoyed his company.

I’ve never been to anything like Hovatter’s before. Living in Pittsburgh, we have access to a great large-scale zoo and aquarium. I’ve been to the Columbus Zoo, another massive and hugely-financed establishment, as well as Disney’s Animal Kingdom and other similar places. But I’ve never seen anything as unique as this West Virginia Zoo – and arguably, I enjoyed my time there more than any of those other big-name zoos. It was simply thrilling being able to interact with the animals and see them up close. I mean, seriously… I touched a giraffe’s face.

No doubt, the owners of the zoo have a challenge marketing a place like this in today’s “bigger is better” climate. To most, it probably looks like some shady, backwoods, cliched West Virginian place with Deliverance music and whatever other woodland stereotypes one can imagine. But a place like that takes heart to operate. It takes passion, and desire, and a genuine love of animals. No creature there appeared mistreated, hungry, or like it was lacking attention. Everyone we met was attentive and kind, willing to talk about anything related to the business and the animals within.

The zoo is an absolute treasure buried in some desolate West Virginian town nobody has ever heard of, and is essential to visit if you’re ever in the area. Without a doubt, it will become part of our annual Lakeview tradition from now on. I’m already excited to see what’s new next July.

Check out the gallery below for more pictures of the animals and the zoo.

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