Homeowners in the Meadows at Great Falls Crossing in Reston don't get mad when their neighbors act like wild animals. It's part of what they like about the area.
About two dozen Meadows houses back up to the Reston Zoo, a private reserve on the northeastern edge of Reston where more than 100 zebras, ostriches, bison and other hooved, horned and feathered game romp freely over 30 fenced-in acres. Less than 10 minutes from Tysons Corner, the zoo draws families from the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia who pay up to $12 per person to see wild animals outside a cage or circus ring. But homeowners such as Randy Cepuch can view the wildlife out their back window.
Never mind that the animals bide their time mostly eating and relaxing. Cepuch, the original owner of his 16-year-old Colonial on Dasher Lane, has not grown jaded. "I love being able to look up from whatever I'm doing and see zebras and buffalo grazing," he said. He finds them enchanting " even in the middle of the night. "I love hearing the shrieks and cries and moos," he said.
Once known as the Reston Pet-a-Pet Farm, the reserve " a former dairy farm just north of Lake Fairfax " was opened in 1974 by Mack S. "Jack" Crippen, a colorful Fairfax businessman who began collecting exotic animals after receiving a pet llama from animal lover Arthur Godfrey. Today the menagerie, which also includes about 260 non-roaming exotic animals plus some 130 sheep, goats and other barnyard critters, is run by Meghan Mogensen, a third-generation zookeeper whose father, Eric Mogensen, had leased the property since 2000 and bought it shortly after Crippen's death in 2006. The Mogensens also own private zoos in the Shenandoah Valley and in the Florida Panhandle.
The novelty of seeing exotic animals from his house was a major draw to the neighborhood, said Alan Tashima, also an original homeowner. Although friends warned him of the risk of wafting zoo smells, "we've never had a problem," he said.
Keeping the animals contained, however, has proved trickier. Not long after moving in, Tashima and his wife discovered one of the zoo's deer nibbling shrubs in their back yard. The deer, which had escaped through a hole in the fence, was safely recaptured and returned.
More recently, homeowner Joan Lefler spotted one of the zoo's peahens (a female peacock) in her yard, feeding amid a flock of Canada geese.
"I looked out the window and saw the geese, which wasn't unusual. But then I saw this other bird that didn't belong. I assume it either flew over or was blown over the fence by the wind," said Lefler, who called Fairfax County animal control to come capture the bird and take it back home.
How an alligator wound up in Erin Kemp's yard in 2007 remains a mystery. Kemp, a Fairfax County teacher, spotted the 2˝-foot-long reptile while taking out the trash and trapped it in a guinea pig cage before calling animal control. Although she and others suspected that the alligator was another zoo escapee, officials there said at the time that all of their residents were where they should be.
Not all of the encounters between man and beast have ended well. One of the zoo's bison had to be euthanized in 1999 after it ingested something toxic that might have seeped into the zoo's water supply from the neighborhood. Shortly after the incident, a zoo staffer quoted in the local homeowners newsletter implored residents to help prevent future catastrophes by not pouring antifreeze and other chemicals down storm drains.
Having a zoo as a neighbor might not be everyone's cup of tea, said real property appraiser Sue Bowers of Suburban Appraisers and Consultants of Oakton: "There could be odor issues, or there could be noise issues." Such nuisances would tend to drive down home values, she said.
But absent a nuisance factor, "I'd consider it a positive," she said. The location near a big, open green space is desirable, she said. "It's very rare to have open space in Northern Virginia."
Keith Hartke, a co-owner of the Reston-based realty firm National Realty, says clients he has taken to look at houses near the zoo are invariably bemused by the animals.
"I've taken people out on the decks of houses for sale, and they're looking at an ostrich," he said. "It's not the kind of thing you usually see in a suburban neighborhood."
Home sales in Reston stand up favorably nationally and against other areas of Fairfax County, according to real estate agent Kathy Scoggin of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "We're not seeing as many short sales and foreclosures."
There are 44 houses in the Meadows. Those near the zoo, which average about 3,200 square feet and are set on about one-third of an acre, are selling for about $900,000. Houses typically are on the market for about 75 days.
Since buying the zoo, the Mogensens have taken steps to improve safety for the animals and the people living near them. A second perimeter fence was added to make it more difficult for animals to escape " and to receive unhealthful snacks from visitors on the outside. And with animals no longer able to come up to the fence in search of food, there's less opportunity for people to get bitten, Meghan Mogensen said.
The zoo also worked to improve drainage on the property and to prevent a small stream from backing up during heavy rainfalls and flooding nearby houses.
Meanwhile, some of the animals also do their part to be good neighbors by eating ticks and stink bugs, Mogensen said.
Over the years, many high school and college students from the surrounding neighborhoods have participated in zoo-sponsored internships and have signed on as volunteers, Mogensen said. Last year the zoo donated $8,000 in free passes to local schools.
Thanks in part to the zoo, Jacob Kemp, 13, said he never had trouble coaxing friends to come to his house to play.
"It was the coolest thing ever," he said. "The llamas would come right up. We'd go there two or times a week with the dogs."
Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer.