Like many businesses, the West Virginia State Wildlife Center was shut down during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the unplanned closing had a silver lining, according to Office Assistant Judy Channell.

“Our staff was able to catch up on many small projects on the grounds and in buildings,” she said. “We have a new concessionaire for the gift shop, and we made some minor repairs/changes in that building to assist them with their new layout. We also painted the kitchen in the snack bar. And we did some work on the fishing pond that included building a new bridge.”

Open for business

The 327-acre park in Upshur County is an ideal getaway for visitors of all ages who wish to get a gander at West Virginia’s native and once-resident wildlife species.

A 1.25-mile wheelchair-accessible interpretive trail leads through a mature hardwood forest past spacious enclosures that allow the animals to interact naturally with their environment.

Species on display include elk, bison, river otter, bobcat, mountain lion, black bear and wild boar. Visitors can also view a snake exhibit and several species of birds of prey, including bald eagle and great horned owl. The facility also is the home of French Creek Freddie, north-central West Virginia’s resident prognosticating groundhog.

While the COVID-19 virus continues to be a concern, staff at the Wildlife Center have taken precautions to help safeguard the health of its visitors. One-way traffic is promoted on the exhibit trail to assist with social distancing. Facilities also are scrubbed regularly, Channell said.

“Our staff cleans the restrooms and disinfects doorknobs and other frequently touched areas several times a day. We also have signage in place to inform visitors of CDC guidelines for self-screening and handwashing.”

Staff take extra measures when serving food from the snack bar, and the gift shop limits how many customers can be in the store at one time. The picnic area remains closed at this time.

From game farm to zoo

Originally called the French Creek Game Farm, the facility was purchased in 1923 and used to pen-raise game birds and other species of animals for re-stocking projects around the state.

Recognizing its unique recreational and educational value, the WVDNR developed several native wildlife species displays for the general public. These wildlife exhibits proved to be so popular that in the fall of 1926, nearly 6,000 people visited the farm.

Eventually the game program was discontinued, and the facility reinvented itself as a zoological center where the public could come to learn about native species. An entirely new exhibit area was designed and built beginning in 1984. On Sept. 28, 1986, the new facility was dedicated and renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.

The Wildlife Center is open year-round, seven days a week, including weekends and holidays. The facility operates on shorter hours from Nov. 1 to March 31 (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and admission is free during this period.