Safari manager to fight allegations in USDA complaint

Posted: March 19, 2017 at 1:05 a.m.

Erica Parker of Locust Grove, Okla., (center) holds a 7-week-old bear cub at the Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari in Gentry, which was found to have violated U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations from 2012-16.

GENTRY -- Leon Wilmoth acknowledges the dead lion was his fault.

Kaitlyn McNac, 9, of Cleveland, Okla., visits with giraffes Scarlet (top) and Sophia on Wednesday at the Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari in Gentr...

Leon Wilmoth, manager, hands over Banana, a red-tailed albino boa, to Landon Ray, 15, of Skiatook, Okla., at the Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari ...

Visitors enter the drive through safari Wednesday at the Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari in Gentry.

Wilmoth, the manager of Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari, put a collar and leash on the 7-month-old male lion in February 2013, then got a call that took him away. When he returned to the enclosure, he found the lion jumped over a pipe and hanged itself, he said.

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Wild ride

Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari has been the focus of several legal matters and complaints over the years.

1998: Wild Wilderness pays an $8,000 fine to settle U.S. Department of Agriculture accusations of violations ranging from poor record-keeping to unsanitary conditions and improper pens, all of which occurred in 1993 and 1994.

2002: Freddy Wilmoth, who at the time was the safari’s manager, pleads guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Endangered Species Act. He is sentenced to six months of home confinement and three years of probation and is ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution. Wilmoth had been charged for selling four endangered tigers that were later killed for their hides. He is no longer associated with the safari.

2002: The safari agrees to pay a $10,000 fine to settle multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act from USDA inspections in 1999 and 2000. The settlement includes a requirement half of that money be spent on training of personnel and to improve facilities.

2005: A Benton County woman sues the safari, claiming a monkey bit off much of her hand, including two fingers, as she was preparing to feed it during a visit to the park in 2004. The case was settled and the result is confidential, according to Chadd Mason, a Fayetteville attorney who represented the woman.

2008: The safari pays $3,094 to resolve alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

2012: The U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a letter of warning to the safari.

2015: A Benton County jury awards $916,745 to the safari in compensation for 9 acres of the park taken by Southwest Electric Power for the placement of high-voltage lines. The utility company originally offered $36,600 for the land.

2017: The U.S. Department of Agriculture files a lengthy complaint outlining numerous violations by the safari, including reports of inadequate veterinary care and failure to keep appropriate barriers between humans and dangerous animals.

Source: Staff report

"It made me sick. I take full responsibility for that. There was no intention of hurting that lion," Wilmoth said.

The incident was one of 68 instances in which the safari violated U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations from 2012 to 2016, according to a complaint the department filed in January.

Thirteen of the items listed in the department's complaint this year concerned inadequate veterinary care, including a spider monkey that lost the tips of most of its fingers and a baboon that had chewed off its injured tail. Inspections also found instances of overgrown hooves, expired medications and lame animals.

Wilmoth compared those injuries to the kind many people live with every day, adding he plans to fight any penalties resulting from the complaint and the perception the safari intentionally mistreats animals.

"If you go into Gentry, does anyone have a cut finger? Or have they stepped on a nail a little bit, or has one of them got the flu? It's virtually the same thing out here, but it's our responsibility to take care of these animals. And they're painting the picture we do not take care of these animals," he said.

The history of violations and alleged violations should cost the business its exhibitor license and result in a hefty fine, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington-based organization.

"The requirements under the federal Animal Welfare Act are minimum, modest requirements," said Cathy Liss, the institute's president. "So when an entity isn't able to meet those requirements, it sets off some alarm bells."

Liss said she's not aware of any other animal exhibitor that's been the target of three formal complaints by the Department of Agriculture.

"So this facility stands out for its apparent failure to comply with federal law," she said.

The complaint cited inadequate veterinary care, failure to protect animals from the climate and insufficient barriers between visitors and some dangerous animals among the problems identified during inspections.

The safari paid a $3,094 fine to resolve similar violations in 2008 and received an official warning in 2012 for violations of department regulations, according to the complaint.

Wilmoth said the safari has addressed the issues in the complaint and continues to improve the property. The only problem found was dirty water bowls in some of the enclosures for large cats during the most recent visit from a department inspector on Feb. 1, according to a copy of the inspection report.

Wilmoth said he's not worried about the safari losing its exhibitor's license.

"If they shut us down, what are they going to do with all of these animals?" he said. "The only reason we have a USDA license is because we're open to the public. If you're not open to the public, you don't need no USDA license."

The safari has hired attorney Kurtis Reeg, Wilmoth said. Reeg, who works for the Goldberg Segalla law firm in St. Louis, didn't return a message seeking comment last week.

Safari's story

The 400-acre safari is home to more than 800 animals, many of them exotic. Those who drive through the property will see tigers, water buffalo, emus, hippos, camels and numerous other species. A separate walk-through area and petting zoo includes giraffes, snakes, monkeys, pigs and goats.

A 2014 article published by USA Today listed the safari as the fourth-best animal safari in the country, calling it a "must see" while visiting Arkansas.

The parking lot was nearly full Wednesday, one day after word of the Department of Agriculture's complaint became public. Many of the visitors were kids from Oklahoma who were on spring break.

The safari is a family enterprise, which traces its origins to the 1960s, when Wilmoth's father, Ross Wilmoth, obtained his first three buffalo. His collection of animals slowly grew. It was around 1975 the family began charging admission. Ross Wilmoth died in 2005, but the family decided to keep the operation going. About two years ago, admission rates were increased to $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 3 to 12.

"We don't make much money. We make ends meet, but we stimulate the economy unreal," Wilmoth said. "Every penny we make goes right back into the animals or the facility. We do it because we love it. We're born into it."

He also noted the safari's efforts to breed endangered species, something most zoos don't do, he said.

He acknowledged it's a challenge to meet the needs of so many animals, but expressed exasperation over what he sees as increasingly stringent government regulations and department inspectors who "can be real nice, or they can be jerks."

The safari spends "a lot of money" complying with the department's regulations, he said.

The safari uses veterinarians from Siloam Springs. Veterinarians are on site at least twice a week, he said.

Wilmoth insisted the safari has fixed every issue the department has identified, and at great expense.

"And these people are painting it like, every day we go out here and kill a lion or cut the toes off something. That is not the case," he said.

What's next

The safari is expected to file an answer to the complaint with the Office of the Hearing Clerk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Failure to do so "shall constitute an admission of all the material allegations of this amended complaint," according to the complaint.

An administrative law judge will hear the case and determine what, if any, action should be taken against the safari, said Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist with the department.

"It's still going through the process at this point," Espinosa said. She couldn't provide a time frame for when the process might be completed.

The items outlined in the most recent complaint against the safari go back as far as 2012. That's because investigations take time, Espinosa said.

"We may have started an investigation, and something else may have occurred, and we combined investigations," Espinosa said. "Investigations take time because we want to be as thorough as possible."

Even if all issues of noncompliance have been resolved, an animal exhibitor can still be assessed penalties, Espinosa said.

"It's fantastic when facilities correct the noncompliances, but the fact there were noncompliances to begin with is still an issue, especially if they were grievous noncompliances, like animal injuries or animals that didn't receive veterinary care. Those are issues of particular concern," she said.

Benton County has no regulatory authority over the operations of Wild Wilderness, a county official said Wednesday.

John Sudduth, the county's general services administrator, who oversees the Planning Department, said the business pre-dates the county's planning regulations and there is nothing the county can do to regulate it.

"Unless they did something new, like added a new building or something similar, there's nothing we can do," he said.

The business has come to the county twice in the last five years with building plans. In 2012, according to county records, the Planning Board approved plans for a 672-square-foot restroom facility and a gravel parking lot. In 2016, records show the Planning Board approved another restroom facility, this one of 2.064 square feet, and a 1,710-square-foot covered pavilion.

Sudduth said the planning staff has found no state laws or regulations governing the business operation.

Picking sides

The safari already has garnered some support in its conflict with the department.

The Cavalry Group, based in Grover, Mo., is an organization that describes itself as an advocate for animal owners and animal-related businesses, according to its website. Mindy Patterson, the group's president, issued a statement last week defending the safari.

"The challenge is that well-funded radical animal rights groups that know little, if anything, about the care of animals use misleading statements and false accusations about USDA inspection reports taken out of context which serves as nothing more than a fundraiser for their deceptively named organizations which frequently uses emotionally based, unscientific propaganda to destroy legal businesses which do not align with their 'animal rights' ideology," the statement read.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has targeted the safari, identifying it as one of 17 "roadside zoos" across the country that "exploit animals," according to an article posted on the organization's website.

"Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari is a living hell for the animals imprisoned there," the article states. It goes on to list some of the same accusations listed in the Department of Agriculture's complaint.

Brittany Peet, PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement, said Friday the department's complaint comes as "no surprise."

"The USDA should revoke this hellhole's license, and the animals should be retired to reputable sanctuaries, where they'll finally receive the care that they deserve," Peet said.

Janie Parks, director of the Gentry Chamber of Commerce, said the safari draws "tens of thousands" of visitors per year from all over the country. The safari is a chamber member.

"They're a vital part of our community," Parks said. "Their family has been involved in the community through several generations. They do a wonderful job out there."

And if for some reason the safari were forced out of business?

"It would be devastating to the city," she said.

NW News on 03/19/2017