By Todd C. Frankel
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Friday, Oct. 13 2006
Paradise’s exotic animals up for auction
Just the name conjures up some kind of free-wheeling heaven: Exotic Animal Paradise.
This renowned drive-through animal park on 500 rolling, tree-studded acres outside Springfield, Mo., was home to all kinds of monkeys, rare birds, tigers, llamas and zebras for 35 years. The descendants of rhesus monkeys that starred in 1930s Tarzan films roamed the land. Visitors fed animals from their car windows. It felt like a place from a different era – an increasingly bygone era of “animal theme parks,” said the park’s owner.
Two weeks ago, Exotic Animal Paradise closed. According to regulators, this place was no paradise for animals.
Now the 450 animals must go.
At an auction that begins here today, dozens of rare and exotic species – including lemurs, coatimundi, camels, buffaloes, bears and wildebeests – will be scattered to new owners, some of whom might not be subjected to federal oversight. The lions should fetch $2,500 a pair. The baboons should go for at least $1,000. The zebras might attract up to $14,000 apiece.
It is an ending that no one seems happy about.
What happened here illustrates the unintended consequences sometimes dealt animals when the laws aimed at protecting them are enforced.
The decision to close was made by the park’s owner, Ron Armitage, after a showdown with federal regulators who cited him repeatedly for animal-welfare complaints. Looking to avoid trial, Armitage agreed in January to shut down and disperse the animals by Nov. 1. Although the park’s demise has been cast as the result of economic factors, Armitage acknowledged publicly for the first time this week that pressure from regulators forced him to move on.
It is a decision animal welfare advocates might be expected to welcome. Instead, they are worried.
“Exotic Animal Paradise was not a place we’d prefer the animals to be,” said Don Elroy, director of wildlife advocacy for the Humane Society of the United States. “But the auction of animals is not the best disposition for them, either.”
Ann Schonert, an animal welfare activist in Springfield, Mo., said she had mixed emotions.
“These auctions leave the animals wide open to other abuse,” Schonert said.
Exotic Animal Paradise certainly qualified as a popular attraction. The park attracted 200,000 visitors a year, making it the fourth most-popular tourist attraction in the area, besting even the city zoo, according to the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The park was founded in 1971 by Pat Jones, father of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
In 1996, Armitage, who had just sold his interest in a similar attraction in Oklahoma, bought the park.
In recent years, Armitage repaved the park’s roads, and added a go-cart track and paddle boat pond. But he was dogged by violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which sets minimum standards for caring for certain animals in commercial or research settings.
Armitage thinks the days of private animal parks may be ending. He blamed a mix of regulations and changing customer tastes. Just this week, the Catskill Game Farm, where 1,000 animals roamed in New York’s Hudson Valley, closed after 73 years. In February, an operator of animal parks in Oklahoma and Texas had his licenses to exhibit animals revoked.
“We’re going the way of drive-in movies and eight-track players,” Armitage said.
The auction runs through Saturday. Armitage said the only animals he plans on keeping are his two Yorkshire terriers.