The path leading to the horse stables at the Catskill Game Farm. (Photo: Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America)
When photographer Matthew Christopher first found out about the Catskill Game Farm in upstate New York, he thought it would be just another interesting place to add to
his online collection of ruins. Abandoned America,
It was only after he visited the former zoo and posted his photos online that stories of the once-enchanting farm began to emerge. “I didn’t really understand just how much it meant to people,” says Christopher. “It was a huge part of the lives of so many families.”
Founded in 1933 by Roland Lindemann with just a donkey, a goat and two deer, the Catskill Game Farm gradually acquired a more exotic range of creatures, eventually housing
2,000 animals. In one season during the 1960s it would have over half a million visitors. “I think in many ways it embodies something about the innocence of the period,” says Christopher, “the post-WWII era when Baby Boomer kids came here in droves to feed baby goats and sheep or see rare and endangered animals for the first time.”
By the late 1980s, however, visitor numbers began to dwindle. The Farm shuttered in 2006, after 73 years in business. It was a wretched ending. According to Christopher, a number of the animals were sold for trophy hunts in confined spaces, where they were “given no means of escaping and sometimes even drugged and essentially executed.” The impact of that, Christopher says, was severe: “There was a moment where people woke up from the dream of children and baby animals mingling together in an idyllic setting and I think that was a pretty scary, sad time.”
A former animal pen.
As a photographer of abandoned ruins, Christopher has an interest in documenting both the process and the history of decay. “One of the central themes of my book,
Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream is about what happens when our visions for things go off the rails, so to speak,” he says. Of course, it’s also about a lost past. “I also really enjoy the histories of these places and connecting with people whose lives they were a part of. They tell us so much about not just who we were, but who we are today.”
After its sad end, the Catskill Game Farm’s new owners are looking to preserve its history. Christopher says that a B&B, RV site and museum are planned for the grounds, but it will not go back to being a zoo. Apparently, the owners “are supportive of people’s desire to keep a part of it alive and reconnect with their past”. Nevertheless, he continues, “I’m glad that the current owners want to celebrate what made it special, but I think the final years need to be acknowledged and understood as well.” AO has a selection of Christopher’s images from his book.
Overgrown grass at the Game Farm.
Entrance to the Catskill Game Farm. On the fence there are shadows from the wooden giraffes that used to flank the entrance.
Inside one of the pens.
The miniature golf facility.
Entrance to African Section of the park.
A deteriorating building near the nursery area.
A playhouse in the nursery area.
A now-empty animal enclosure.
One of the farm’s buildings.
Inside the farm house.
Children’s games amid the detritus.
Unused boxes of Sylvania flashbulbs.
The cover of Christopher’s new book.