By: Kristin Dudley, staff writer
MARSHFIELD-It was a zoo at the park formerly known as Exotic Animal Paradise this weekend as nearly 1,000 people from all over the country showed up to bid on elk, zebras, bears, monkeys and more.
Bidders were armed with their money and hauling trailers. (As of 10 a.m. Friday, 500 people had buyer numbers.) The much-anticipated sale had been publicized nationwide.
Ron Armitage, of Marshfield, owner of the park, called it quits this year, announcing the sale of the park in the spring and his desire to close after years of service as a tourist and recreation icon of southwest Missouri.
“It’s pretty tough; just really difficult,” Armitage said while watching the sale. “I’m really fighting emotion today. Up until this moment, we’ve been busy finishing up the season. What’s harder is the wonderful group of employees. I’m going to miss them.”
Lolli Brothers Livestock Market, Inc., out of Macon, was the auctioneer, selling off approximately 450 animals and park equipment which included bus seats, mannequins, ladders, fences, decorations and more.
“I made it a point to hire the best in the business for the animal portion,” Armitage said. “Lolli’s are recognized in the top of the auctions in the United States.”
Armitage, who sat by the auctioneer’s truck next to the cages of animals in his golf cart with wife, Brenda, said he was pleased with the auction turn-out.
“The first part is (the animals) go to great homes. That’s why I’m happy for the number of people here,” he said. “I want them to sell for the most they can. I have a lot of money invested in these animals.”
Brenda Armitage said she was handling it all “fairly well.” She admits that after spending so much time at the animal park, she was having a hard time parting with the animals.
“There’s some of them I can’t hardly stand to part with,” she said. “The monkeys and the lions, particularly a monkey named Spidey.”
Ask Ron why he decided not to keep his wife’s beloved Spidey. He laughs because it’s hard for him, too.
“She has two Yorkie terriers and that’s enough,” he said. “This’ll be the first time in many years we haven’t had hundreds of animals to care for. For now, we’ll focus on those Yorkies.”
Around 10 a.m. Friday morning, the crowd headed to the animal barn to witness the sale of history.
“What are people going to do with these things? You can’t just put them on a farm,” said Tina Burns, a science teacher from Alpena, Ark., who made the drive to the sale. “We live on a 350-acre farm.”
Burns used to take her children to Exotic Animal Paradise when they were young. She remembers stopping by fruit stands on the way up to the Strafford park, buying rotten fruit and feeding it to the animals when they drove through the park.
“It’s a good family outing,” Burns said. “It was fun and made lots of memories.”
Now Burns’ children, who are in their mid-20s, recently heard of the park’s closing and made a trip for the final time, with her daughter hoping to buy a pair of zebras.
“I didn’t think it’d be this sad. Look in the buildings. The deer just stand there and are scared to death,” she said. “I never dreamed it’d be this way.”
On hand were agents and officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“They’re here to make sure we do it right,” said one of the auctioneers over the loud speakers.
To purchase some of the exotic animals, Missouri buyers were required to have a Class 2 permit and have proper caging ready for the critters.
“Ron’s been in this for 35 years and made a decision to do this,” said Jerry Austin, Missouri Department of Conservation agent out of Webster County. “I’m here to help monitor the sale of black bears and cougars. They’re dangerous, predatory animals.”
Austin, who answered numerous questions from inquiring auction spectators, kept his finger marked in the code book.
“If sold to a Missouri resident, these buyers must have the Class 2 license and be specified so that we know they have the facility to keep them,” he said. “Non-residents can buy without a permit but then have 48 hours to comply with their state’s regulations.”
Austin said for people to obtain the licenses, they must acquire a breeder’s permit and pass a test.
“If they don’t have an operation similar to this, they have a private facility they can breed,” Austin said of the buyers. “Ron’s interested not only in placing animals, but placing them where the buyer will be responsible with them. The regulations are there to protect people and the animals. You’ve got to be committed.”
Austin said that in his 22 years as an agent, he had never seen an animal sale quite on this scale, but was prepared for the questions.
“Everybody’s been cooperative,” he said. “We have the welfare of the animal in mind at this sale.”
Prices listed on the sale bill ranged depending on the particular type of animal and its anticipated value.
Joe Scott, of Ste. Genevieve, drove up specifically for elk. He said he wished to put them at Crown Valley Winery as yard ornaments. Watching as the 12 female and one male elk sold for $450 each, Scott refrained from bidding.
Other buyers, such as Jerry Decker, owner of Red Dawn Game Farm in Owensville (near Rolla), made the 100-mile trip to purchase some of the deer. Decker said that as a breeder, he’d breed, raise and sell the deer to people who wanted them on game ranches for people to hunt.
“They’ll be fed good. They’re healthy, fantastic animals,” Decker said. “That’s why God put them out here is to hunt.”
Joe Blankenship, owner of Stone Creek Ranch in Owensville, said he was mostly looking at deer, but was also interested in “anything that goes cheap.” Blankenship said he’d put them on his ranch for people to hunt.
Blankenship and Decker said many of the buyers were probably there for the same reason they were. Others, they said, probably came to buy and would turn around and sell them to other people around the country, acting as dealers.
“They’re peddlers is what they are,” Blankenship said.
Everything sold was to be gone by Saturday night.
“We want them out of here as quickly as possible and in their new environment,” said one of the auctioneers. “That’s how it’s got to be.”
New landowner Tony Oddo, who is developing Paradise Lakes subdivision, had originally announced that he’d try to keep a portion of the animal park open, having obtained the name “Exotic Animal Paradise” earlier this year following the sale of the land. Oddo had said he’d try to purchase some of the animals at the sale. According Oddo, however, he did not.
“The animals went for such high dollars, my animal handler didn’t feel like we should buy any of the animals,” Oddo said. “Some of the dangerous animals, we’re not going to add to our park. I don’t see any reason to put any of those poor animals in a cage just so people can drive by them in a car. But, we’re going to continue with the themes and do the Christmas lights in the drive-through park next year.”
Oddo said he did make good connections with other animal lovers who drove from all around the country for the sale.
“I suppose if you drive all the way from Texas, you don’t want to go home with an empty trailer. That’s why there was such a frenzy,” he said.
Oddo, however, said he bought other stuff like ticket booths, coin machines, go-carts and a large “Noah’s Ark.”
“I was happy to see the stuff get hauled off so we can start off fresh,” Oddo said.
Paradise Lakes is intended to be an upscale subdivision in a three-phase development process located off of Interstate 44 near Strafford and Northview. Paradise Links Golf Range is up and running. A golf course is in the works and, according to Oddo, developers are currently working on an Exotic Animal Putt-Putt golf center.
Oddo, who went fishing in Paradise Lakes with his son during the sale, said he hopes that it’ll become an adoption center for the animals and perhaps people with wild animals will want to donate them.
“I’ve been offered a free tiger already from a lady who brought him up from a bottle and with the new regulations can’t have him,” he said. “She just wants him to have a good home.”
Oddo, who also said he’d like to join with veterinarian colleges to become a training center, said he planned on buying other animals.
“We’ll be ready to reopen in the spring.”