For most of his 74 years, Hans Boxler has been a dairy farmer in the rural Wyoming County town of Varysburg.
Now he's about to start a second career.
Hidden Valley Animal Adventure, a 175-acre preserve for exotic creatures, will make its public debut next spring. Hidden Valley was seven years in the making. Boxler estimated his cost to be $2 million and climbing. It's home to more than 400 animals that roam in the quiet pastures that comprise a portion of his 5,000-acre farm. Boxler, however, has received incentives and tax breaks from such groups as the Wyoming County Industrial Development Agency.
"Why am I doing this?" he said. "Because I love animals."
He has a Dr. Doolittle-like karma with his still-growing herd that includes bison, water buffalo, camels, zebras, emus and wildebeest.
"Hans really loves animals," said Bob Gibson, Hidden Valley general manager. "If something happens to one of them, any of them, it breaks his heart."
Hidden Valley is a picturesque venue that's destined to become a regional tourist attraction.
"It is definitely going to impact the tourism dollars that come into the county," said Robin Marschilok, program manager, Wyoming County IDA. "This is a very unique project. It is a destination that is very reachable, not only from Buffalo and Rochester but from Pennsylvania and Ohio. It will draw dollars from all around us."
Visitors will be greeted at a timber-framed lodge that serves a multitude of purposes and includes a private catering center. The lodge has some overnight guest rooms and a restaurant for those going on the preserve's hour-long tour.
Several groups have booked events such as wedding receptions and family reunions.
Brian Fleischman is executive director of the Wyoming County Tourism Promotion Agency. He said Hidden Valley could eventually rival Letchworth State Park as a main attraction in the county. Letchworth annually attracts between 600,000 and 800,000 people.
"I can't underestimate its impact," Fleischman said. "It certainly has the ability to attract people the way Letchworth does."
Boxler bought a few Army surplus trucks and is having them refigured to seat 30 people. The trucks will take visitors on the tour, whose highlight is interaction with various animals. Visitors will be given a bagful of grain to feed animals at stops along the tour.
"Grain is like candy," Boxler said. "They love it."
A dairy farmer by trade, he looks the part with calloused hands, mud-caked blue overalls and a well-worn Carhartt cap. He said that in 2002, his love of animals led him to buy the beginnings of his exotic herd.
A member of the Dairy Farms of America buying co-op, Boxler's farm is home to more than 4,000 cows, goats and other dairy animals. At its peak, the farm generated 150,000 pounds of milk per day - enough to fill three semi-tankers. Boxler said his daily dairy output has dropped in recent years due to overseas competition and other economic factors.
"You know what they say about farmers? A farmer is a jack-of-all-trades but gets paid for none," Boxler said.
The start-up costs for Hidden Valley weren't cheap.
Reindeer fetch as much as $2,500 each. Zebras run $7,000 apiece. A pregnant camel can cost as much as $10,000.
The animals were acquired through a network Boxler has tapped into that includes on-site auctions, such as one he recently attended in Mount Hope, Ohio.