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LI Game Farm remains closed, but there's no break from caring for the animals

Well-known local businesses like the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park & Children’s Zoo in Manorville are trying to stay afloat with the help of donations and a dedicated workforce. Newsday's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang

The donkeys, tortoises, alligators and other exotic and domestic animals in Manorville are stuck waiting, just like housebound Long Islanders.

Spring sunshine and balmy weather should mean they're finally getting to spend long hours of carefree time outside at the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park & Children’s Zoo in Manorville. And there should be another boon: treat-supplying visitors.

But this year, the farm’s future is imperiled — just like many small businesses forced into abeyance by the novel coronavirus.

The game farm, which had been scheduled to open April 16 for the season, will remain closed to the public during the pandemic, like so many other attractions.

Visitors usually start arriving in mid-April, but schools, now closed, and other groups, have canceled chances to feed the baby goats, alpacas and zebras; walk among the deer, and climb onto a platform to make friends with a giraffe, eye-to-eye, according to Melinda Novak. She took over the 51-year-old farm last year after her mother, Diane, 84, retired. 

Long Islanders are helping out — contributing funds on the farm's website or through a GoFundMe page. And sometimes, they're coming through with groceries, like the lettuce enjoyed recently by some of the goats and older llamas.

“People have been so generous,” Novak said by phone.

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“It’s a wonderful thing," she said. "People do want us to continue.” 

Amid a staff shortage, Novak said she has not had time to return phone calls to express her gratitude. The animals still require their usual, sometimes-backbreaking care.

“Animal feed and care is all we are doing,” Novak said.

For now, the usual springtime repairs at the family farm, including the new stockade fencing, are on hold. Instead of eight to 13 workers needed in spring to restart water lines, mend fences, clean barns and ready pens, Novak is relying on one full-timer and one part-timer, along with her daughter and son-in-law, who help out when not at their own full-time jobs.

“We’re all tired. We don’t know where the end is,” Novak said, joining other Long Islanders deeply unsettled by the uncertainty and inability to plan during the pandemic.

The animals who winter in Florida, including the giraffe, the camels and lemurs, remain there for now because transport is so costly.

If the virus-fighting stay-at-home policies continue into May, the farm’s finances will be especially hard-pressed, said Novak, who has applied for some of the relief in the new federal economic stimulus bill.

“We run pretty much tight year-to-year, financially,” she said. “If we can’t open until May, that’s really, really scary.”

The educational aspects of her tours are one of her favorite responsibilities, Novak said. But the farm tends to underplay its role rescuing creatures that have grown too large or whose care becomes too complicated for their original owners. That list includes the four African tortoises, a wild horse, two mini ponies, five mini donkeys, three goats and two sheep.

Older animals are allowed to retire gracefully. Visitors seem to prefer younger ones.

The two red foxes, Yukon and the outgoing Stanley, named for her father who died in 1999, are Novak’s favorites.

Despite all the hurdles, including the loss of her sister in November 2001, and having to close her business as a Sag Harbor soap-maker, Novak is no quitter. 

“I am so stubborn," she said. "I figure we can get this thing up and running — and with the help of Long Islanders, we’re going to do it."

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