The head of the West Virginia State Wildlife Center will be retiring from his post after more than three years of service.
Wildlife biologist Gene Thorn told members of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce Monday that his 30-year biology career both began and will soon end at the wildlife center, which has its home in French Creek in southern Upshur County.
Thorn earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife resources, specializing in forest management, at West Virginia State University. He then earned a master's degree in wildlife management and a minor in forest management from Penn State University. He first worked for seven months at the wildlife center in 1983 before working in Wyoming County. He came back to the wildlife center a few years ago. He said his last day will be Halloween.
"It was a real pleasure when I got to come back up here," Thorn said. "For me, it was a coming home, both job-wise and home-wise."
Thorn said he will retire to a new home in Queens with his family. He said both sides of his family are originally from Queens.
"I'll live the rest of my life out here in Upshur County," Thorn said. "I told my wife that, after this move, this is it. The next move is heaven. West Virginia actually has a unique place here in our backyard in Upshur County."
Thorn said the wildlife center was a dairy farm before its 320 or so acres were purchased by the West Virginia Conservation Commission in 1923. The wildlife center is still known to many locals as the Game Farm, a name it was known by after it was first established.
The wildlife center is home to many animals that are or once were native to West Virginia. Thorn said it receives worldwide visitation and people come from all 50 states in the nation.
"When I came, I've had some goals that I've met, and I guess I'm going to hand the torch over to the next guy for some of them," Thorn said. "One of the things I wanted to do when I came here was to create family friendly events at the wildlife center and kind of spiff it up, get it looking good.
"The future of the wildlife center is going to be passed into someone else's hands, and I hope great things happen for that," Thorn added.
One goal that Thorn has not seen come to fruition is his desire to create a foundation for the wildfire center due to budgetary restrictions. Thorn said the center's budget has remained the same since 1986, while utilities, food costs and other expenses have continued to rise.
"That's really what the next step for the wildlife center is," Thorn said. "I was hoping to get that up and going. I think the foundation is the only future for the wildlife center to actually progress on."
Some doors that Thorn said he hoped a foundation would open for the wildlife center are a visitor's center and indoor exhibits and an aquarium.
"Those are pretty much outside the realms of the wildlife center as it now stands," Thorn said.
In the short time that Thorn worked for the Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife biologist at the center, he has introduced new family-oriented activities. Thorn recalled the Civil War-themed West Virginia Day of this past year, and said it was a good time for all. He also mentioned the Spooky Night Tours, which will take place Friday and Saturday. The tours start with afternoon hayrides and continue with a bonfire right after dark. Thorn said that more than 1,000 people attended last year's event on Friday night alone.
"It's the only opportunity during the year to go out after dark and tour the wildlife center," Thorn said. "Most of our animals are actually nocturnal. They're very active at night."
Thorn said the mountain lions will actually stalk people who walk along the fence, their eyes and bodies following tourists as a territorial warning.
"They'll lock in on (the smallest person), come down the fence and follow them with, not only their eyes, but their body," Thorn said. "You're glad there's a fence in between you and them."
Thorn said the Spooky Night Tours could also feature zombies and other things that go bump in the night.