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Holtsville Ecology Site and Animal Preserve

Holtsville Hal and his handler, Greg Drossel, during a previous Groundhog Day celebration. Photo by Kristen D'Andrea/Town of Brookhaven

By Heidi Sutton

“Well, it’s Groundhog Day, again.” — quote from Groundhog Day (1993)

Pennsylvania may have the legendary groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, but here in Suffolk County we have our very own prognosticator of prognosticators, Holtsville Hal. The cute little rodent with his buck teeth and short bushy tail will be the star of the day as the Holtsville Ecology Site & Animal Preserve celebrates Groundhog Day with a special event on Feb. 2. Hundreds will gather to hear Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Daniel P. Losquadro announce Holtsville Hal’s famous forecast. 

According to tradition, if a groundhog sees its shadow after stirring from hibernation on Groundhog Day, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; if not, spring should arrive early. Superintendent Losquadro will reveal Hal’s prognostication at approximately 7:25 a.m.

“Our annual Groundhog Day celebration is an enjoyable tradition for many local families,” said Superintendent Losquadro in a press release. “I’m always hopeful Hal will predict an early spring to help my snow removal budget, but either way this is a much-anticipated event each year in Brookhaven Town.”

“Holtsville Hal’s prognostication is anxiously anticipated every year and it’s always a relief when he predicts an early spring. Let’s hope that he doesn’t see his shadow on Groundhog Day and we can look forward to a short winter season,” added Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine.

Although he’s sure to be the center of attention, Holtsville Hal will not be the only animal available for viewing on Feb. 2. Following the ceremony, residents are welcome to enjoy some free hot chocolate and visit the more than 100 non-releasable, wild or injured animals residing at the Animal Preserve, including its latest resident, Leonardo “Leo” DiCatprio, the Eurasian Lynx, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. 

The Preserve is also home to a buffalo, black bear, bobcat, coatamundi, hybrid wolves, an artic fox, goats, horses, pigs, cows, alpaca, deer and many more.

Gates will open at the Holtsville Ecology Site & Animal Preserve, 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville, at 7 a.m.; parking is free. 

Residents are asked to arrive as close to 7 a.m. as possible to get a good view of Hal. Call 631-451-5330 for more information.

Leonardo “Leo” DiCatprio, the Eurasian Lynx that was loose and eventually captured on Long Island earlier this summer, has settled into his permanent home at the Holtsville Ecology Site and Animal Preserve. Joining the more than 100 wild and farm animals that reside at the Animal Preserve, Leo was revealed to the public in his new enclosure on Nov. 22.

“We are grateful that the DEC and SPCA felt the Ecology Site was the right environment for Leo and we are thrilled to have him among our residents,” said Brookhaven Highway Department Superintendent Daniel Losquadro. “However, we hope when people come to enjoy this facility and view the animals, they understand the dangers in keeping wild animals as pets. While we have no idea why Leo was being kept as a pet, we are very happy that he is safe and healthy at our facility.”

Since arriving at the Ecology Site in August after being cared for at Sweetbriar Nature Center, Leo has gained 15 pounds and enjoys various enrichment activities to stimulate his natural behaviors. He can often be seen running, stretching his legs, climbing, jumping and pouncing —performing all natural cat-like behaviors.

“The Suffolk County SPCA is pleased to have a close working relationship with the Holtsville Ecology Site and its wonderful, caring staff,” said Suffolk County SPCA Chief Roy Gross.

The Holtsville Ecology Site and Animal Preserve, 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can view the animals, free of charge, including peacocks and mustangs, a bobcat, an American black bear and an American bald eagle. Call 631-451-5330 for more information.

Children entering grades 2 though 6 can learn how to care for farm animals such as these pygmy goats at a Fun on the Farm class on Aug. 9. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

The Town of Brookhaven Holtsville Ecology Site & Animal Preserve was recently awarded a $38,748 grant through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Zoos, Botanical Gardens & Aquariums Program. The money will be used for operating costs related to the care of the more than 100 unreleasable wild and farm animals residing there. The grant will be automatically renewed annually through 2026.

Town of Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Daniel LoSquadro at the Holtsville Ecology Site. Photo from TOB

“The Holtsville Ecology Site is a beautiful facility enjoyed by more than 200,000 visitors each year, free of charge. This grant will enable our caretakers to continue to provide the animals entrusted in our care with the attention and shelter they deserve,” said Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Daniel P. Losquadro.

After completing numerous infrastructure improvements, including upgrading enclosures and replacing damaged concrete and fencing, the Animal Preserve, located at 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville is now fully reopened to the public, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

In addition, the Ecology Site is now accepting registration for its summer programs.

For those interested in learning more about the animals who reside at theAnimal Preserve, tours are available, including self-guided, guided and behind-the-scenes tours. Behind-the-Scenes tours are available by appointment only, for groups of six or more, for $10 per person. In addition, from July 5 through Aug. 26, tour guides are available by appointment to take visitors on a guided tour (minimum of 10 people) for a cost of $5 per person. Call 631-451-5330 to schedule any tours.

The Ecology Site staff also hosts several fun and educational summer programs, including “A Day with an Animal Caretaker” for children entering 4th through 6th grade. Participants are invited to spend time with the caretakers as they feed and care for the animals on Tuesday, July 12, Thursday, July 21, Tuesday, Aug. 2, Thursday, Aug. 11, OR Tuesday, Aug. 23, from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. The cost is $50 per child.

On Thursday, July 14, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., children entering 2nd through 6th grade can attend “Where the Wild Things Are” to learn why wild animals do not make good family pets and, rather, belong in the wild. Cost is $10 per child.

Children entering 2nd through 6th grade interested in learning about caring for farm animals such as cows, pigs, chickens and goats, can attend “Fun on the Farm” on Tuesday, Aug. 9, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. The cost for this class is $10 per child.

“Ice Ice Baby” is a program for children entering 2nd through 6th grade who are interested in learning about cold-blooded animals including snakes, lizards and turtles. Participants may choose to attend this class on either Tuesday, July 19, or Thursday, Aug. 4, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.

All participants must pre-register for the summer programs by calling 631-451-5330.

Photo from Town of Brookhaven

Kick off the holiday season at the Town of Brookhaven’s annual tree lighting at the Holtsville Ecology Site, 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville on Friday, Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. The event will feature costumed characters, complimentary candy canes, musical entertainment and a special appearance by Santa Claus who will arrive by helicopter and then assist with the countdown to light the tree. Event sponsors include Texas Roadhouse, Eastern Helicopters, WALK 97.5, WBLI, WBAB and My Country 96.1. Please bring a new, unwrapped toy for a child in need. For more information, call 631-451-6100 or visit www.brookhavenny.gov

By Heidi Sutton

When my daughter was little, one of her favorite places to go was the Town of Brookhaven’s Holtsville Ecology Site Animal Preserve or “The Little Zoo” as we liked to call it. She would run through the open gates to say hi to the Nubian goats with their long floppy ears as I retrieved feed from the 25-cent vending machine. She would marvel at the buffalo, see if any birds were in the large birdhouses, and then off to see the ducks, rabbits, fox and Rascal the coatimundi. A quick stop to see the eagles and hawks and then down the inviting path (overflowing with beautiful flowers grown in the attached greenhouse) to Honey and Pooh Bear’s enclosure, the preserve’s resident black bears. 

Sometimes we would stay for an hour, sometimes I would pack a lunch and we would head over to the picnic tables by the playground and grab an ice cream from the ice cream truck waiting in the parking lot. Before we left, we always had to head over to the koi pond behind the greenhouse to see the turtles. It was a ritual many town residents have enjoyed spring through fall since the park opened in 1979. Best of all, it was always free, except the ice cream! It is a special place.

Last March the animal preserve was closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic, briefly reopened in September but then shut its doors again. Now there is a spring awakening. Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Daniel P. Losquadro recently announced that the preserve will partially reopen to the public, albeit with a few changes, on Saturday, May 1. 

The preserve will be open Thursday through Monday with limited spring hours from May 1 to 28; reservations can be made every 15 minutes from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Beginning Memorial Day weekend, on May 29, reservations will expand from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Only Town of Brookhaven residents with reservations and proof of residency will be permitted to enter the animal preserve. Reservations to book a visit must be made online at www.BrookhavenNY.gov/Ecology.

“Until we see exactly what the demand is, we’re going to limit admission to only Brookhaven Town residents. We’re hoping by the summer to have the entire facility back open as it was before and just using normal social distancing protocols,” said Superintendent Losquadro during a tour on April 9.

There has been a silver lining, however. While the preserve remained closed, the town took the opportunity to fix up and enhance the animal enclosures. “We really embarked on some infrastructure improvement projects that otherwise would’ve been very difficult for us,” said Losquadro. Retaining walls, gates and railings have been rebuilt, metal fencing has been installed, new concrete has been poured, the eagle house has received a complete makeover, and the large bird cages have been replaced. 

The animal preserve has also continued to be the recipient of several Eagle Scout projects, including new houses for the goats and ducks, hutches for the rabbits and enrichment projects by the Boys and Girl Scouts to keep the animals busy and active during the day. 

“We  were very fortunate throughout this entire process that we’ve been able to continue to make improvements and prepare for reopening the facility for our residents,” said Losquadro.

While Pooh Bear and Rascal have passed away from old age, over 100 injured or non-releasable wild animals and farm animals call the preserve home including a new coatimundi named Lulu, Phantom the arctic fox and two hybrid wolves, Drax and Thanos. All have a story. Many, including the coatamundi, were kept as pets illegally and were confiscated by the SPCA, the DEC, etc.; some were hit by cars and were not able to be released back into the wild. But for all, the Ecology Center is a sanctuary with a caring staff led by director April Perry who is excited to reopen the preserve. 

“It’s going to be a soft opening,” said Perry who explained that when the facility reopens May 1, only a portion will be accessible, from the main entrance up to the eagle exhibit. Animals available for viewing at this time include the Arctic fox, alpaca, bald eagle, bobcat, Boer goats, buffalo, coatimundi, hybrid fox, the hybrid wolves, llama, mini pigs, nubian goats, pine martin, prairie dogs, rabbits, red fox, red tail hawk, and skunk.

Although the animal preserve is always free, Perry would like to remind people that a donation box is situated at the entrance. “When people donate, that money goes directly to feeding the animals and vet care,” she said. 

“Unfortunately (because of the pandemic) those efforts had slowed down a bit and the town actually absorbed all of that cost to make sure that we weren’t lacking for care of the animals or feed. Now all those donations go directly to offset those costs,” added Losquadro.

“I don’t think we would have survived without the town’s help,” said Perry. “I have been here 34 years and I am so impressed how much Dan has put into the Ecology Site and how much we are growing and moving forward. It makes my heart happy. This place means a lot to me — it’s like my second home.”

Perry also attributes the preserve’s continuing success to her staff. “I have incredible employees — they care. They are here seven days a week making sure the animals have water, have feed, that they are clean and safe and everyone steps up to the plate and they do it.”

COVID-19 safety protocols will be strictly enforced with precautions — including mandatory masks, limited admissions, and social distancing — to help ensure the safety of all visitors and staff. In addition, the Information Center and Greenhouses will not be open but access to restrooms will be available. 

“If it were up to me we would be fully open but we have to do things carefully, we don’t want to create an environment that is hazardous,” explained Losquadro. “We are all very excited — we are looking forward to May 1. The preserve is here so people can come visit the animals and learn and experience it — it’s not to keep them hidden away. We’re anxious to get this incredible place back open.”

The Town of Brookhaven Ecology Site and Animal Preserve is located at 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville. For more information, please call 631-758-9664.

All photos by Heidi Sutton