KINGWOOD, W.Va. — Bryan Hovatter, 41, begins each day at 6 a.m.
He barely gets five hours of sleep a night, but that can be expected when 300 plus exotic and sometimes-deadly animals live in your backyard.
As he swings open his back door, he comes face-to-face with leopards.
It's not just leopards; Hovatter has nearly 40 different species of wildlife on his property — everything from Himalayan bears, giraffes, lions, tigers, camels, lemurs, tortoises, ostriches, bison and more.
It is a family affair. Both Hovatter and his oldest son, Logan, do most of the work — from building cages to making sure all the animals are fed.
Other family members work the gift shop and perform other necessary tasks.
Hovatter bought the 8-acre property nearly 25 years ago while he was a sophomore in high school. He said he was able to slowly buy it from a man up the street while working as a coal miner.
"I paid him what I could at the time," Hovatter said. "I began buying black bears, cougars and other wildlife to put on the property."
Hovatter owned a coal mine and worked there with his father and brother until coal sales declined and were forced to shut down. After leaving the mines, he became a full-time zookeeper and began adding more animals.
Hovatter opened up his property to the public in 1991. He dubbed it the Hovatter Wildlife Zoo and on average, more than 30,000 unique visitors make their way to the Preston County location each year. It opens to the public in April and typically closes in mid-October.
The zoo is licensed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Division of Natural Resources. Hovatter says his property is almost always being inspected by the federal government and strives to abide by all federal and state regulations.
Hovatter said the incident in Zanesville, Ohio, in October 2011, in which 49 exotic animals were shot dead following an escape, has put operations like his in a bind.
In that incident, Terry Thompson allowed the animals to escape and committed suicide afterward.
"I knew Terry personally," Hovatter said. "After that happened, the federal government enforced new regulations and laws which I had to abide by or be subjected to fines."
Hovatter said he constantly receives calls from federal and state officials and cooperates with their efforts to make sure the animals are properly cared for and housed.
To make sure no animal escapes, Hovatter does daily cage inspections. In addition, he has a perimeter gate. He has since bought seven more acres and is thinking about expanding.
With 300-plus animals, Hovatter's monthly grocery bill totals $10,000. His water bill nears $400 a month.
He coordinates with local farmers and buys chicken, beef, turkey and various fruits for his animals.
"Sometimes a farmer may have a dead cow that we could feed our lions," Hovatter said. "A lot of local farmers can give me deals on meat, which is great."
Hovatter said his giraffe named Zack has put his zoo on the map.
Zack was featured in the movie "Evan Almighty" and many people have traveled from all over to see him.
"Zack has become quite the celebrity," Hovatter said. "Zach is 2,800 pounds and stands a mere 18.5 feet high. The public can feed him carrots and he can easily consume a case of carrots a day."
Zack is housed in a shed specifically designed for a creature of his stature.
Hovatter said he wants to increase the giraffe population in the near future. He recently bought a baby giraffe named Zuri from Natural Bridge Zoo in Roanoke, Va.
Hovatter said he traveled to Roanoke to make sure Zuri was eating properly and was healthy enough for the trip back. In addition, Hovatter purchased a baby camel named Wednesday and placed it in the same enclosure with Zuri.
Hovatter said Zuri was born a twin. This happens once in 280,000 births. Since the twin was to go to Wisconsin, Hovatter wanted to make sure Zuri had a companion so he bought Wednesday as well.
The price tag for both was $65,000.