Sippin’ with sloths, kangaroo yoga, and swimming with otters are all activities featuring animals from Barn Hill Preserve near Frankford.
The 7.5-acre property has been in Joshua Mueller’s family for decades. He spent his younger years on the property with his parents, who later sold it to another family member. In 2016, Mueller purchased it back with the plan to open Barn Hill Preserve.
Mueller, who graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in wildlife ecology, says he has always had an interest in wildlife, specifically protecting and preserving species.
“Opening a wildlife rescue and zoological park has been a dream of mine for years … certainly since I spent time working at the original Barn Hill Preserve in Louisiana,” Mueller says.
Louisiana’s preserve, established in 2012, is home to 50 species. In Delaware, Mueller started planning the preserve in 2016, with much of the work being completed by its opening in 2019.
Of course, just like any working farm, the preserve is a constant buzz of construction. It is now home to 28 species of animals, including kangaroos, a camel, wallabies, sloths, an aardvark, reptiles, chickens, goats and otters.
Most of the animals come to Barn Hill through zoo programs. Others are animals that were surrendered by their owners.
When Australian bush fires decimated large swaths of the country, Mueller and Gabe Ligon, founder of the Louisiana preserve, went down to help save and rehabilitate injured koalas and other animals.
For Mueller, it was a chance to give back, and it further ignited his passion for making Barn Hill Preserve in Delaware a success.
The preserve has the same accreditation and federal licensing as most other zoos and wildlife parks. One of the differences at Barn Hill is animals have open areas to roam: They aren’t confined to cages with cement floors.
“We do everything we can to allow our animals to live a stress-free life,” Mueller says. “If they aren’t having a great day, we will cancel an event. The animals are our priority.”
Feeding the animals can be expensive; Mueller has built a relationship with Parson’s Farms down the road for in-season produce. Mueller has his own garden in warmer months where he grows fresh vegetables for the animals, but mostly he depends on customers to fund the preserve through admissions and sales from the gift shop.
Mueller first started holding events in 2019 with kangaroo yoga. During the pandemic, he worked with local businesses to host car safaris where families could drive through and see the animals — all socially distanced.
And the events have been popular. Mueller says both kids and adults like getting up close with the animals.
Recent Sippin’ with the Sloths events at Revelation Brewery in Rehoboth Beach have sold out, requiring more dates to be added. This summer, Mueller is excited to offer Swim with the Otters events. While you won’t actually be swimming — the water is only about 48 inches deep — the otters will be able to swim and play around you.
While Mueller thinks he may expand in the future, he doesn't want to outgrow the property. "There's a tax ditch that runs right through the property, so I would need site work to access the other side. That's something down the road, but I don't ever want to get massive. For me, it's all about focusing on the animals and educating people."
When groups tour the preserve, they are limited to 25 people or fewer. Each group has a tour guide who is well-versed in the animals and who can answer questions and explain the care each animal requires.
Growing up in rural Sussex, Mueller remembers exploring the woods, getting dirty and seeing animals in the wild. "My friends and I would hike and bike all over the place," he says. Fewer houses existed back then, and he remembers large swaths of woods that no longer exist.
"Back then, we just went out and had adventures. It's not like that as much these days," he says.
While he is not anti-development, he believes in preserving open space and protecting wildlife.
"A big part of what we do here is educate people on the animals and their struggles in the wild," Mueller says.
He is proud to partner with Kids Saving the Rainforest, a Costa Rican nonprofit working to protect and save sloths and other wildlife.
A recent project to build monkey bridges, allowing monkeys and other animals to cross power lines safely, was a big success, Mueller says. The group wants to make more to protect animals from accidentally grabbing onto power lines and being electrocuted. Mueller is planning a “Sloth-tober” event to benefit the group.
As for Barn Hill Preserve in Frankford, Mueller always has something going on. They are now working to construct an 8-foot perimeter fence, which was part of the plan approved by Sussex County Council during a recent zoning hearing on whether to allow the business. The plan got letters of opposition and support from several neighbors at the time.
Mueller, who employs 10 others on the farm, is proud of what they are building together.
"Our neighbors have been really supportive, and the community welcomed us," he says.
He is also working with the Delaware Department of Transportation to relocate the parking lot to the opposite side of the main building to allow better vehicle flow into the preserve and additional parking.