At the height of its popularity after World War II, the Catskill Game Farm attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. People would drive up from New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut and spend the day petting donkeys and bottle-feeding calves, connecting with nature and wildlife (though most of the animals weren’t that wild). The park was the first privately owned zoo in the United States. And, for a time, the biggest.
But, over the years, people stopped visiting the Catskills so much. Airline travel became popular; there were other places to go. And, gradually the turnstiles at the farm stopped spinning so regularly. The farm fell into disrepair, and in 2006 it closed. In 2016, it looks more and more like a relic from another era.
“It went beyond an animal lover’s hobby to being something that was really an enormous vacation destination,” says photographer Matthew Christopher. “It had a magic moment with the baby boom, when people would drive up and have vacations. It blossomed starting in the 1940s and a lot of people have this childhood memory of going there.”
The farm is one of several stories in Christopher’s upcoming book, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream. The photographer is fascinated by decaying places and what these ruins say about our past, present, and future. (We covered his previous book here.) “When you have factories, churches, and schools closing, there’s a big question that looms over our future,” he says.
As well as prompting nostalgia, the farm is also controversial. When animals outlived their usefulness as exhibits, they were often sold for trophy hunting (so-called “canned hunts”). News of this poor animal treatment probably contributed to the farm’s demise. “These animals were raised to trust humans. They were used to being around kids and being petted. Then they were in a pen and someone would come up and execute them. It was pretty horrible,” Christopher says.
See more pictures from the Abandoned America series here.
All Photos: Matthew Christopher