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Richmond’s Natural Treasure

Down on the Maymont Farm

Stanton Thalhimer still looks for the peacock that used to roam the grounds of the Farm when he was six years old and visited Maymont. “The peacock isn’t there any more, but it was my favorite animal,” says Thalhimer, who chairs Maymont’s Spirit of Generosity Capital Campaign. “It’s a great place to come, run, and play.”

As a child, Thalhimer would scoot in and out of the bamboo forest and roll down the hill to the Farm. “I would play in the creeks,” he says. “It was a fun place to go when you lived in the city and weren’t exposed to animals.”

The Farm at Maymont, which was closed for a year of renovation, reopened last month with a renovated barn as well as the addition of new play areas, outdoor paddocks, and new classrooms for programs and birthday parties. A rain garden and a bio-retention area were also added to foster and promote environmental sustainability.

The Evolution

The large variety of animals now at the Farm didn’t inhabit the grounds when James Henry Dooley and his wife Sallie May bequeathed their 100-acre Victorian country estate to the city in 1925, stating that it was to be used as a museum and park. The animals the couple did own were prize-winning horses, chickens, and cows.

The city opened Maymont to the public in March 1926. The urban treasure didn’t feature animals until the late 1950s when Thalhimer’s great grandfather, William B. Thalhimer Sr., brought over the animals that Thalhimer’s store used in its advertising campaign. The park created animal exhibits in 1959 and completed the Farm in 1960.

When the Maymont Foundation assumed responsibility for Maymont in 1975, Thalhimer’s great aunt, Rhoda, and her husband, Charles G. Thalhimer Sr., were instrumental in working with other members of the community to create the Thalhimer-Virginia Wildlife Foundation to raise funds to maintain the animals. “We’ve had continuous family involvement in Maymont since the 1950s,” says Thalhimer, who has been involved with Maymont as a board member and volunteer since 1999. “I take great pride in that and knowing the footsteps I am following in.”

Giving kids the opportunity to enjoy Maymont and its animals in the same way Thalhimer did years ago is rewarding for him, as is the fact that his teenage children, Will and Claire, volunteer at the Robins Nature and Visitor Center. “They love the Japanese Garden at Maymont and the Farm. They also love the history behind it,” he says.

While he played at the park often during his childhood, not all of Thalhimer’s memories are as happy as others. He remembers a time when the Maymont Mansion was a scary place for a kid. “In the 1970s the house was awful,” he says. “It wasn’t taken care of. People could wander through and there was no control. It was dark and cold. To a little kid, it was disconcerting. Now you walk through it, and you are amazed at what the Foundation has done. It’s a destination now.”

When they passed away, the Dooleys did not leave an endowment for the property and over the years, the city had “no funding to put to the care of the Maymont,” says Dale Wheary, curator of Maymont history. “The condition started declining in the 1930s and 40s.”

The mansion, once opulent and lively, began to deteriorate. “There were leaks throughout the house,” Wheary says. “Then the city began to rehabilitate the house after an article ran in the Times-Dispatch in 1970. That article turned things around.”

In 1975, the Maymont Foundation began overseeing the property and resumed restoration to bring it back to the splendor of the Dooleys’ time. To date, twenty-one rooms have been restored and are on view to the public.

“Conservation of collections is another focus of the Foundation’s work,” Wheary says. “There are about a thousand pieces left of the  Dooleys’ furnishings and works of art.”

The original barn and pastures were completed in 1960 before the Foundation’s involvement. The site was relocated in 1983 to accommodate larger facilities for the animals in a location that was more accessible for guests who wanted to pet the animals.

For former city councilwoman Kathy Graziano, the animals at the Farm were a definite lure for her and her nine grandchildren – six are under the age of fourteen. She has been visiting Maymont since she moved to Richmond from New York City in 1969. “I always brought my four kids, and by the time I got through with mine, the new crew of grandkids was coming along,” she says.

Her children used to love to run up and down the hills, and now her grandchildren enjoy the bamboo forest and the Japanese Gardens. “The grandkids also like the waterfall, and they love the nature center. That is another big hit with them,” she says. “They also will play in the fig trees at the main entrance of the Farm for an hour.”

Training the Animals

Today, Maymont has around 400 animals that include fish and invertebrates (bugs, worms, etc.), along with mammals, birds, and reptiles. Anaka Nazareth, Maymont’s manager of animal training, spends her days developing and implementing training programs for the animals. “A big part of my job is teaching the staff how to train the animals,” says Nazareth, who has a bachelor’s degree in exotic animal training and management as well as a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation.

She and her staff predominantly work on husbandry behaviors such as getting an animal to go into a crate for transport or go onto a scale to be weighed. “We also will train them to allow us to give them injections,” she says. “They all get annual vaccinations and we want to make that process as easy and positive as possible.”

She also makes sure they are getting the right amount of food and that all of the animals are healthy. While she and the staff don’t teach the animals tricks like you would see in a circus or at a theme park, they do work with them on natural behaviors. They may, for example, have the bobcat climb up a tree. Some of the goats are training to vocalize on queue and wave with their front hoof. “In reality, it’s a natural thing for goats,” Nazareth says. “We’ll train the farm animals to jump up on things and weave through poles for agility.”

She and the staff train every animal from the bobcat and the bears to the spotted deer and the chickens. “We also work with birds of prey, such as the hawks and eagles, and in the nature center, we work with flying squirrels, turtles, and alligators,” she says.

All of the animals are taught using the same positive reinforcement technique. Nazareth has to figure out what will be the most reinforcing treat for each animal. “If I want the bear to come stand at the fence near me, then I am always ready with his favorite treat,” she says. “If we want him to stand up to see his belly, we hold the food up high. We break it down in steps. The bear gets his treat if he tries.”

One of the tools she uses is called a marker signal. “A lot of times people will use a clicker or whistle,” she says. “Whenever I make that sound it indicates to the animals that they have done what they are supposed to do and reinforcement is coming.”

When she is working with the bear, she will click a clicker when he stands up to get his treat. “There are many different techniques to get the animal to exhibit the behavior you want,” she says. “You have to figure out how to set up the environment to lead them to the behavior.”

Trainers are the only people allowed to use the reinforcing behaviors for the animals, she adds. “This is not something our guests are able to do. We
will have a specific training presentation every weekend at two o’clock each day. Guests can come and see the bobcat do some cool things. Right now, we don’t have a bear training presentation, but perhaps in the future.”

Each of the animals has its own challenges when it comes to training. “The hardest thing is finding what is reinforcing to that particular animal,” she says, noting that she and her staff are currently training some of the box turtles at the Farm. “We have four box turtles, and three of them love their worms that they get for training. The fourth one isn’t as interested in the worms as the other turtles. We are in the process of figuring out what is more motivating for him.”

The goats are very eager learners so Nazareth and her staff have to slow them down when they are in training. “They are very food-motivated, and they love the grain we train them with,” she says.

The bobcat is very food-motivated as well. “We have to reinforce him quickly or otherwise he gets upset. Because he likes his food, you have to be a more advanced trainer to work with him,” she says, adding, “Our bobcat knows a lot of behaviors already, and he has a nice repertoire of behaviors for people to see.”

The food used to feed the alligators also serves as their reinforcement. Trainers use a target pole with a ball on the end of it to train the alligators to associate a pole with their food. “Many of the animals are trained to touch their nose to the ball,” Nazareth says. “We can move it around to guide the animal to different areas.”

Nazareth is also training one of the alligators for color discrimination tasks, showing him red or green hexagons. “The alligator is trained to come to the red hexagon,” she says. “This is something I do a lot with our chickens. They are fast and fun to train.”

There are some additions to Maymont’s animal population this year. The Farm is getting new adult Blackface sheep, and perhaps some new arrivals of the slightly more adorable kind. “Some of our goats are out for breeding so we could potentially have some kids (baby goats),” she says.

She sees training as an incredible tool that helps trainers communicate with the animals. “Training is a common language we can share,” she says. “Because we are using positive reinforcement, there are no repercussions if the animals decide they don’t want to do what I ask. They don’t have to do it.”

Nazareth’s goal is to make training fun for the animals, which will make it easier for the Maymont staff to take care of them and for visitors to enjoy them. “We want to give them the best life we can,” she says. “It’s really amazing when there is a light bulb moment for the animals when they realize what I want them to do, and they are like, ‘that is so easy.’ They will keep doing it over and over.”

That love and respect for the animals that inhabit the Farm shines through for Graziano, and she appreciates it – especially when she visits Maymont with her younger grandkids in tow.

She sees visiting Maymont as an excellent chance for the family to get closer to nature. “There are so many different things you can see and do at Maymont now,” she says. “It’s a very, very cool place to go.”


Photos: Carla Murray, Chicken and donkey, Dennis McWaters, Mansion

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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