Thursday, October 10, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bassett's Wild Animal Farm, Brewster

Bassett's Wild Animal Farm

     In today’s technologically-driven world the younger generation have access to almost anything they could want to view at the tips of their fingers. Video games, on-demand movies and television, virtual reality, stimulating one’s senses comes easy in the 21st century. In the decades of the past entertainment was far different for those growing up on Cape Cod. For nearly fifty years the Cape Cod Mall has been a popular hangout spot, the Cape Cod Baseball League has consistently provided family-friendly fun for a century, miniature golf, bowling, and more have been go-to’s for kids and families. However once upon a time there was another outlet for family entertainment located in a rural wooded area near Route 6A in Brewster. It was where kids could see creatures both familiar and new to them many in a hands-on way. This was not a zoo, it was an animal farm. It was Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm.

     The idea of the wild animal farm, similar in theory to a petting zoo, on Cape Cod was the brainchild of Harry ‘Bud’ Bassett. Bassett was born and raised in Brewster, a part of the Brewster Bassett family lineage. From an early age he was a lover of animals and the environment. After fighting in World War II and working in the private sector as part of Cape & Vineyard Electric Co. until he was in his early-thirties Bassett decided to act on his love of animals, as well as his large tract of land on Tubman Road in Brewster. In 1959 Bud, along with his wife Olivia, began dreaming up an animal farm after Olivia gave him a pair of deer as a birthday present.

     Bassett would purchase more land to the south of his farm to accommodate more animals. He would include creatures familiar to Cape Codders like rabbits, raccoons, Canadian geese, skunks, and more. The true appeal of the endeavor would be those animals not native to the peninsula. Bassett would purchase those creatures from reputable dealers at game farms in the south. He would prove his love of animals by selling those that did not naturally hibernate during winter to southern farms in the fall and purchase the animals again in the spring.
A postcard for Bassett's Wild Animal Farm (Sturgis Library)
     Initially known as Bassett’s Game Farm it would have its grand opening May 2, 1959. It cost 50 cents for adults and 30 cents for children to enjoy the sights of the familiar and unfamiliar animals nestled among the peaceful pine forest. It was a much more fulfilling experience for people to see these animals in a natural environment rather than a city zoo. The pony rides, hayrides, petting zoo, and more attracted throngs of families to the twenty-acre farm. The venture was a success and by 1962 there were more than fifty species of animals at the-now Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm. As his farm grew in popularity Bassett added llamas and a black bear among other creatures. It would become a staple of summer family outings and school trips as the 1960’s wore on.
     In the 1970’s a leopard, mountain lion, several coatimundi, and a few Patagonian cavies became part of the farm. In 1979 after nearly twenty years of sharing his love of animals with Cape Codders, visitors, and their families Bud Bassett decided it was time to sell and retire. He found a buyer in Gail and Donald Smithson who were looking for a place to begin an Appaloosa horse breeding farm. Initially the Smithsons were not going to continue on with Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm, that was until the grounds were being toured and Gail fell in love with the animals there. She kept the attraction going, simply adding her Appaloosa horses to the mix. Bud Bassett moved to Mariaville, Maine after selling his farm.

     Gail Smithson did not take the legacy of Bassett’s lightly. During her first few years she did extensive repairs and renovations trying to make the farm as impressive to those perhaps seeing it for the first time. She improved the cages some of the animals were kept in, and added Indian zebus, a mountain lion, and an African lion for visitors to gaze upon. Smithson also integrated her horses into the farm as part of the pony rides and hayrides. In 1994 a Bengal tiger cub named Okemo was brought in to be a part of the popular attraction. Although Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm continued to be widely patronized by families and school field trips and incident involving that Bengal tiger would spell the end of the line.
One of my own personal visits to Bassett's Wild Animal Farm. 1982
     In May 2000 a fourteen-year-old employee at the farm was bitten by the tiger on her right calf after entering the cage to feed the 500-pound animal not knowing the trap door was open. Concerns from the federal licensing agency which oversaw all animal parks were two-fold, if the animal was rabid, and whether the girl had the appropriate paperwork to even be employed there. In the years leading up to the incident there had been minor protests about the captivity of the animals, most notably by local artist Malcolm Wells in 1996, this incident with a large cat was too much to ignore. Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm closed in 2002.
     Bud Bassett, despite spending his remaining years in Maine and Florida, continued contributing to the Cape in other ways. Before his passing in 2010 he and his wife Olivia donated a one and a quarter acre chunk of land along Slough Road to the Brewster Conservation Trust. The main parcel of Bassett’s Wild Animal Farm along Tubman Road is seeing a second life as well. In 2014 an affordable housing project through Habitat for Humanity was approved with 13.9 acres of land being used for fourteen homes ranging from two to four bedrooms and being ready for living in 2021. The remaining land would be sold back to the town of Brewster.

     Though it has been closed for nearly twenty years many residents and visitors to Cape Cod have fond memories of wandering the seemingly endless maze of animals, some dangerous, some not, and feeling so far away from the typical Cape surroundings. Because of those memories Bud and Olivia Bassett’s showcase for their love of animals will never be forgotten.

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

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