After nearly five years on the market, Fort Rickey has been sold to Chris and Rebecca Stedman.
The new owners will continue to operate the zoo as before, and are planning to open for the season this month. All current group reservations, birthday parties and season passes will be honored under the new management.
The pair have roots in the area. Chris was “born and raised” nearby, and Rebecca moved to the Mohawk Valley when she was in high school, and worked at Fort Rickey at that time.
“I started here when I was 16 and I worked here two years,” she said Wednesday. “It’s what I always wanted to do, so I invested a lot of time here. That was almost 20 years ago.”
The Stedmans learned that the property was for sale late last year, through a Sentinel article.
“The whole story was, my mom has the Sentinel page out here, and I came to visit” from Connecticut, where the family was living, Chris said. “I was supposed to give it to my wife to read and I forgot. My wife was going to make a fire one morning,” and almost used the paper for kindling.
“She happened to see it and called me, and we started the emailing process back and forth with the owners.”
“We jumped as fast as we could,” to buy the property, Rebecca said, because “I saw that they were making a decision by March.”
The Stedmans are no strangers to animal care — Rebecca managed an animal hospital in Connecticut for 12 years, and Chris has “worked with just about every animal in research, from mice to monkeys.”
They met as youths working at the Elmer Hill Veterinary Clinic. “He was supposed to be a veterinarian and I was going to be his technician, that was the plan,” Rebecca laughed. “Then he went into research.”
The plan is for Rebecca to manage the zoo full time, while Chris is now working at the Masonic Medical Research Institute in Utica, though he plans to help at the zoo as well.
Already, the Stedmans are familiarizing themselves with Fort Rickey’s residents. Chris said he had been working with the park’s two-foot-long tegu, a lizard, and Rebecca is building a relationship with the wolf pups that came to the park last summer.
“They’re just now turning a year old,” she said. “They’ve been running from everybody, they’ve been really skittish, they’ve been hiding — when you walk past, they’ll run to the other side. But I finally got some time alone to just visit everybody and they responded incredibly to me. They came running up, they were smiling, they wanted to play.”
“It’s really encouraging because I think I’m going to be able to work with them,” she said.
In addition to the tegu and the wolves, the zoo is home to lemurs, giant flemish rabbits — “the size of a small dog” — a python, porcupines, two herds of deer, and Gummy the spider monkey, among others.
“It’s a lot to keep track of,” Rebecca laughed, “It’s a little overwhelming, but I’m ready.”
The Stedmans hopes to open for the season on May 18.
“We’re on target, but there’s a bit of a crunch for sure. It’s definitely not the opening that I would’ve wanted, I need more time, but it’s going to work. No delays — we have school groups already booked, birthday parties booked, so it looks like it’ll be a strong opening season, and we’ll just make the improvements we want to make as we go. Every time somebody comes to see the zoo I think it’s going to be better than the last. We’re going to keep making those changes and keep progressing every day,” Rebecca said.
Some of the planned improvements are to the zoo itself — Rebecca said Fort Rickey may soon acquire a serval cat, and is considering a “walk-in aviary,” where guests can “go in with the birds flying around them.”
“We’d do some bird demonstrations in there where they might be able to hold and pet and feed the birds. As much interaction as we can is what we’re looking for — the discovery aspect, the educational aspect, getting (guests) involved is what they’ll remember.”
Other changes are being eyed for the playland area of the park, where there’s already a “ball crawl” and a large trampoline.
“We’re looking to add more water features,” Rebecca said. “I remember when I was here 20 years ago, (owner Len Cross) had that waterpark, and it was a big draw. But there were some things with the Health Department as far as getting equipment that would filter the water appropriately and that’s very expensive, so that was part of the reason he had to shut that down. But we’ve got some other ideas that won’t require that kind of permit, so we’re going to try to bring some more of that back in — big plans.”
Meanwhile, Len and Bobbie Cross, who have owned and operated Fort Rickey since 1978, are looking forward to the next chapter.
“It’s not so much what I’m going to be doing next, it’s that I have the freedom to do some things,” Len said.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and what I know for sure is that I don’t want to be still, it’s not in my nature... I know that I’ve got to be active and I will be — I’ll find things to do.”
However, Len says, he won’t be a stranger to the animals he’s cared for for more than 40 years.
“I’ve got some deep connections with theses animals, so I look forward to coming back and being able to keep tabs on some of them.”