Where the wild things are

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Area residents needn’t travel to Norfolk to catch a glimpse of exotic animals in a zoo setting. Debbie Jeter has a few in her house and back yard she’d love to show, including a chatty macaw named Bubba and a rotund African bullfrog.

“He will be the size of a dinner plate,” Jeter said, pulling the bright green frog from its tank on Monday.

Jeter, 49, recently opened Bear Path Acres Animal Education Center behind her tall 19th century farmhouse on Route 258, just before the North Carolina border. The center, a zoo that is licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday.

Jeter’s love of animals and desire to educate the public about them, motivated her to start building the center four years ago.

“It’s a chance for people to see things they don’t usually see around here,” she said.

The last time Jeter counted, there were 60 animals in habitats at the center. On 5 acres, 18 pens house peacocks, African spur thigh tortoises, goats, Doper sheep, Emus, gray foxes, an American bison, African Watusi steer and a Flemish giant rabbit, among others.

Toward the back of her house, Jeter is working on completing a bird and reptile room, which houses Bubba and the frog, as well as Schneider skinks, natives of the Egyptian desert.

Jeter plays classical music there, mostly for the calming influence it has on 12-year-old Bubba, who raises his voice often to be heard.

“The music has a soothing effect on him,” Jeter said.

One of the most exotic animals at Bear Path Acres is Molly, a kinkajou native to Central America, that looks like a cross between a ferret and a rat. Jeter said she found Molly from a classified newspaper advertisement whiles he was traveling through Tennessee. She credits fate with leading her to most of her animals.

“I don’t go looking,” she said about how she acquires the animals. “I’ve never had a problem. They just seem to find me.”

Jeter has immersed herself in researching about each of the animals, so that she is well-versed to give tours to the public and be classified as an educational center.

For instance, the bison is considered an exotic animal by the U.S. Government, despite being a native to North America, she said.

“It’s all about educating children,” Jeter said. “I want them to grow up and be responsible kids who care about animals and their natural environment.”