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In N.H., Lions in Winter

By Effin Older
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page E04
   


At the base of Loon Mountain, a 44-trail ski resort near Lincoln, N.H., there's a curious sign posted on a gray barn near the parking lot: "Wild Animals Up Close." One of America's more unusual apres-ski options, the barn-cum-arena is home to the Wildlife Theater at Loon, a cross between a zoo and an aquarium, where up to 22 different critters--including an African parrot, a porcupine, a mink, a red-tailed hawk, a red corn snake, flying squirrels, a crow, a great horned owl, two skunks and a pair of mountain lions--strut their stuff. Sort of.

Animals are "trained to do various natural behaviors," according to curator Heidi Hellmuth, which means the mountain lions--stars of the show--climb an eight-foot pole, leap around the stage and balance on a log seven feet above the floor during the 45-minute show. Slinky the Mink swims in a clear, 50-gallon plastic water tank. Houdini the Hawk flies around the theater. Thumper the Porcupine climbs a metal rack that's supposed to simulate a tree.

Except for the mountain lions, which are on chain leashes, most of the animals are hand-held by the theater's three trainers. Some animals are trained to do nifty tricks. Juliet, the big brown bat, scuttles up a trainer's shirt and nestles under his collar. Gus, the African gray parrot, snatches a dollar from an audience volunteer (it's returned). Trainers add an educational component by discussing the history and abilities of each species, what it eats and how it survives in its natural environment. As they walk through the audience, the trainers stroke the animals and discuss how it survives in its environment, how it's suited to its habitat and what it likes to eat.

Audience members can pet the ferrets and the snake, but the rest of the menagerie is off-limits. "This is . . . not a roadside attraction," Hellmuth says. "Otherwise it gives out the wrong message--that wild animals and pets are the same."

As exciting as it is to stroke a corn snake or eyeball a ferret, the mountain lions are the real heart-stoppers. Although they've been handled since they were cubs, you can see their potential to do great harm in their massive paws, lithe bodies and yellow, unblinking eyes.

It's a relief to learn that the trainers have a big supply of horse-meat treats as rewards. You don't want these guys unhappy.

Loon Mountain is in the White Mountain National Forest in central New Hampshire, a 1 1/2 hour drive from Manchester (two hours from Boston). During ski season (mid- November to early May), there's one 4 p.m. show on weekdays and two shows, at 1 and 4 p.m., on weekends. The Wildlife Theater's summer schedule, Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day, features two to four shows daily. Admission: $6; Loon ticket holders get a $2 discount. Info: 603-745-6281, Ext. 5562, or www.loonmtn.com.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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