KINGWOOD, W.Va. (AP) — Bryan Hovatter, 41, begins each day at 6 a.m.
He barely gets five hours of sleep a night, but that can be expected when 300 plus exotic and sometimes-deadly animals live in your backyard.
As he swings open his back door, he comes face-to-face with leopards.
It's not just leopards; Hovatter has nearly 40 different species of wildlife on his property — everything from Himalayan bears, giraffes, lions, tigers, camels, lemurs, tortoises, ostriches, bison and more.
It is a family affair. Both Hovatter and his oldest son, Logan, do most of the work — from building cages to making sure all the animals are fed.
Other family members work the gift shop and perform other necessary tasks.
Hovatter bought the 8-acre property nearly 25 years ago while he was a sophomore in high school. He said he was able to slowly buy it from a man up the street while working as a coal miner.
"I paid him what I could at the time," Hovatter said. "I began buying black bears, cougars and other wildlife to put on the property."
Hovatter owned a coal mine and worked there with his father and brother until coal sales declined and were forced to shut down. After leaving the mines, he became a full-time zookeeper and began adding more animals.
Hovatter opened up his property to the public in 1991. He dubbed it the Hovatter Wildlife Zoo and on average, more than 30,000 unique visitors make their way to the Preston County location each year. It opens to the public in April and typically closes in mid-October.
The zoo is licensed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Division of Natural Resources. Hovatter says his property is almost always being inspected by the federal government and strives to abide by all federal and state regulations.
Hovatter said the incident in Zanesville, Ohio, in October 2011, in which 49 exotic animals were shot dead following an escape, has put operations like his in a bind.
In that incident, Terry Thompson allowed the animals to escape and committed suicide afterward.
"I knew Terry personally," Hovatter said. "After that happened, the federal government enforced new regulations and laws which I had to abide by or be subjected to fines."
Hovatter said he constantly receives calls from federal and state officials and cooperates with their efforts to make sure the animals are properly cared for and housed.
To make sure no animal escapes, Hovatter does daily cage inspections. In addition, he has a perimeter gate. He has since bought seven more acres and is thinking about expanding.
With 300-plus animals, Hovatter's monthly grocery bill totals $10,000. His water bill nears $400 a month.
He coordinates with local farmers and buys chicken, beef, turkey and various fruits for his animals.
"Sometimes a farmer may have a dead cow that we could feed our lions," Hovatter said. "A lot of local farmers can give me deals on meat, which is great."
Hovatter said his giraffe named Zack has put his zoo on the map.
Zack was featured in the movie "Evan Almighty" and many people have traveled from all over to see him.
"Zack has become quite the celebrity," Hovatter said. "Zach is 2,800 pounds and stands a mere 18.5 feet high. The public can feed him carrots and he can easily consume a case of carrots a day."
Zack is housed in a shed specifically designed for a creature of his stature.
Hovatter said he wants to increase the giraffe population in the near future. He recently bought a baby giraffe named Zuri from Natural Bridge Zoo in Roanoke, Va.
Hovatter said he traveled to Roanoke to make sure Zuri was eating properly and was healthy enough for the trip back. In addition, Hovatter purchased a baby camel named Wednesday and placed it in the same enclosure with Zuri.
Hovatter said Zuri was born a twin. This happens once in 280,000 births. Since the twin was to go to Wisconsin, Hovatter wanted to make sure Zuri had a companion so he bought Wednesday as well.
The price tag for both was $65,000.
The two are housed in a newly built structure at the top of Hovatter's property. Their enclosure features a mural that resembles an African savannah. Hovatter painted it himself.
Zuri and Wednesday have attracted many spectators since their arrival. Zuri needs to be bottle-fed four times a day and the two have become best friends.
The structure was originally built to house elephants but Hovatter said he has decided not to get them.
"Elephants are powerful animals," Hovatter said. "I would have needed to hire someone to be with them around the clock. They need a lot more attention than all the other animals I have. I just don't have the resources to get them now."
The structure has heated floors, which will be beneficial this winter.
Hovatter is preparing to build a barn for his bison and plans on downsizing his animal population before winter. He says he sells most of his animals to local farmers or to animal preserves and then purchases more in the spring. This prevents him from having to house all 300 plus animals in the winter, which can be difficult.
Hovatter said his place is unlike many others. Visitors can get close to the animals and feed about half of them.
"Visitors can get within three feet of every animal," he said. "No outside food is permitted but we do sell carrots, peanuts and other food in line with the animals' diets that are regulated by federal guidelines."
Hovatter sells some of his animals to be featured in films or in television commercials. He also buys from licensed dealers and acquires retired movie production animals.
Other than Zack, he has a chimp named Rosa that was featured in the film "Project X" and was handled by Olivia Newton-John, several tigers that were featured in Exxon commercials and a chimp named Zack that spent four years in Europe doing television commercials.
He contracts with Steve's Working Wildlife in California, Animals Montana in Bozeman and Walt Disney World in Florida.
Hovatter's favorite animal are the chimps.
"They are so smart," he said. "They listen to every command. It's unbelievable. I spend hours with my chimps each day."
Hovatter breeds a lot of his animals. He currently has a pregnant zebra and lioness. The lioness could expect two to four cubs.
"When they have their babies, we go in immediately and remove them," he said. "We evaluate them and nurse them. Our lioness' are not good mothers so we end up taking care of them."
Hovatter does have a veterinarian on call in case animals were to fall ill. In addition, veterinary students from West Virginia University visit at times and work with the animals.
Most of the babies are sold at animal sales or to other licensed dealers.
Hovatter said 100 percent of money made from public visits goes back into the zoo's upkeep. He said he had to live off the bank for 20 years and during the past three years has been able to turn a profit. The zoo is not a state or federally operated park, nor are they funded by them.
Hovatter has never taken a vacation.
"This is a full-time job and I work every day of the year," he said. "The only time I am away is when I go to animal sales and even that takes months of planning."
Hovatter has worked with animals for years and during that time has been attacked by bears, wolves and cougars. The family dog was once mauled by a tiger and required a $3,000 facial reconstruction.
Hovatter's Wildlife Zoo welcomes 70 to 80 school groups each spring and claims the largest collection of exotic animals in the state. It is located at 291 Wagner Road in Kingwood and can be accessed by Herring Road off W.Va. 7. The zoo is well marked.
Families and groups can rent pavilions on the grounds for reunions, parties and other occasions.
Hovatter's is open noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It is closed Mondays, with the exception of holidays, when it opens from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $8 for children 3-12 and free for children 2 and under.
For more information, call 304-329-3122 or visit westvirginiazoo.com.
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.com