A group of nationally recognized naturalists and Washington-area businessmen plan to transform the Largo wildlife preserve into a theme park that will include wild animals in natural habitats, a large petting zoo and indoor exhibits.
The group, headed by James Fowler, once a host on the "Wild Kingdom" television program and now a designer of animal parks, holds an option to buy the 400-acre preserve off Rte. 214 in western Prince George's County for $3 million from the American Broadcasting Company. According to Russel W. Shipley, the attorney for the group, the sale is expected to be completed soon and the park probably will open in the late spring.
A subsidiary of ABC opened a 280-acre wildlife preserve on the site in 1974, but closed it about a year later after spending almost $10 million to develop it, Shipley said.
The preserve had more 500 animals, a small petting zoo and several exhibit pavilions, and visitors saw most of the animals, kept in paddocks, by driving along a road that cut through the site.
The new owners hope to spice the old ABC design with exhibits designed and patented by Fowler.
According to local investor Ford Wright Jr., the new exhibits "will be very oriented toward the excitement of close contact with animals. We don't want to be an outdoor zoo where we show everything from A to Z."
Instead, he said, the park will attempt to showcase a few wild animals in open exhibits as similar as possible to their natural habitats.
For example, Wright said, Fowler has designed a jungle-like area where visitors will cross a narrow bridge and watch pumas resting on trees, yards away, or hunting on the ground below.
As in all of the walk-through habitats, pumas and visitors will be protected from each other by moats, bridges or other "hidden" barriers, Wright said.
The renovated park will have a large monkey playground - with a children's playground matching it - an eagle aviary and a large petting zoo, where tame llamas, baby elephants and other animals will be kept.
In all, the 10 investors plan to have 521 animals and will spend more than $1 million renovating the park. Many of the animals, Wright said, already have been obtained by Jurgen Schulz, a widely known animal dealer who also has invested in the project.
Wright said the park will open with many of the basic facilities built by ABC, but the investors hope to obtain a new zoning permit by next summer to allow more extensive renovations.
Once the new preserve is established, the owners hope to draw 50,000 visitors a year.
"We don't want to build another Disneyland," said Shipley. "We're going to open basically what was there, only we will do a better job by making it more natural and imaginative."