The narrow, meandering back roads around Frankford are roughly 10,000 miles away from the sweltering and expansive Australian Outback. But, hidden among the trees and fields of soybeans in the Sussex County countryside is a place to experience the exotic beauty of nature without journeying to the unforgiving landscape found down under. Barn Hill Preserve offers visitors a taste of the wild from the comfort and safety of the First State.
Visitors first pull through a large green gate along Pepper’s Corner Road and, if lucky, are greeted by Zoey, a 2 1/2-foot-tall Eurasian eagle-owl. Zoey isn’t mean — she was carefully raised by Preserve owner Josh Mueller since she was a little owlet. However, her massive stature, huge talons and intense glare may leave visitors longing for a friendlier face — rest assured, there are many to be found at the Preserve.
You can feed an affectionate wallaby, hop around with friendly red kangaroo joeys, feed sloths, bottle feed a baby camel, pet a porcupine, or just relax in this secluded animal sanctuary, and learn about the natural wonders of the world. According to Mueller, “If we immerse you with the animals, you’re going to learn a lot more about them. And it’s not just education about the animals, it’s education about conservation. It’s easy to forget that there are other living things in the world other than just humans.”
Mueller, a Delaware native, started working at a sister preserve in Ethel, La. while pursuing a degree in wildlife ecology from Louisiana State University. Caring for the animals was a surreal experience for the young animal lover. As Mueller’s knowledge and understanding of the animals grew, so did his desire to share his passion for the animal kingdom with his friends and neighbors back home in Delaware.
In 2015, he opened Barn Hill Preserve outside the town of Frankford. At first, Mueller and his team took their show on the road, educating students and area organizations about the animals and the importance of protecting their fragile habitat.
“I’m from Delaware; we don’t have that much close by. I thought this would be a great thing for the state. If I was a kid and had this opportunity, I would be so excited. And people come here from all parts of the mid-Atlantic. We provide an experience most places don’t. It’s very hands-on.”
When COVID-19 restrictions shuttered schools and businesses in 2020, Mueller found creative ways to continue his mission to educate and inspire. The Preserve started hosting outdoor yoga classes in the kangaroo enclosure. Participants got a chance to soak up the morning sun, breathe in the fresh country air, and exercise next to their new four-legged friends. The kangaroos are surprisingly sociable and love hanging out with humans.
During the pandemic, Mueller and his crew also started offering “Sippin’ with Sloths” events at local wineries, providing imbibers a chance to sip their favorite local wine while learning about the gentle creatures. Delawareans also now have a chance to paint with sloths — and yes, the slowest mammals on Earth are able to hold a brush and create their own patient masterpieces.
Aside from their educational offerings, the Preserve also works with numerous organizations around the world to support preservation efforts. When raging brush fires in Australia in 2020 devastated the local animal population, Mueller was there to offer aid. His team camped out in the charred wilderness, surrounded by suffering and destruction. The fires burned 46 million acres and are estimated to have killed more than 1 billion animals. According to Mueller, “We camped out in the bush at a national park and every morning it was covered in smoke. Everything was black; there was a lot of death and the animals were starving because all of their vegetation had burned away.”
The team spent their mornings moving thousands of pounds of food and fresh water to areas where animals were in desperate need. Their afternoons were spent caring for the badly injured animals. “It was a really depressing, but also rewarding, experience because we were doing something good. And after working with my animals for so many years, being able to see other animals in their natural habitat was pretty cool,” he says.
Mueller’s experience in Australia has strengthened his desire to expand Barn Hill Preserve to allow the knowledgeable staff to educate even more people. In the fall, a new petting zoo and otter experience is set to open, giving visitors an even more intimate way to interact with animals.
Mueller’s goal is to eventually expand the Preserve to between 50 and 100 acres. Despite his organization’s rapid growth, he said he will remain focused on creating an exciting environment for both parents and their children to learn. “It’s rewarding to see the children, the way you can see them get inspired. They see the animals and they are so happy. It’s so much fun making memories for people. When people come here and are blown away, it reminds you of how special a place this is.”