Woman says the owner encouraged her to cross a fence to pet the animal
By Monte Mitchell
Saturday, October 28, 2006
The New River Zoo has been closed for an investigation prompted by a woman being bitten by a leopard.
Investigators expect to visit the privately owned zoo next week as part of an ongoing investigation into the Oct. 16 incident, said Jeff Jones, the director of Ashe County Animal Control.
The woman was bitten on the right arm and wrist after she crossed a 4-foot-high barrier fence and tried to pet the leopard by putting her arm through the cage’s gate, Jones said. The woman, Susan Thomas, 36, of Hamilton, had severe cuts and required surgery at Watauga Medical Center.
The leopard was euthanized so that it could be tested for rabies. The tests were negative.
The zoo owner, Keith Stroud, got the animal to release the woman’s arm, Jones said.
But the woman told authorities that Stroud was with her and allowed her to pet the leopard.
“That’s why we closed the zoo – that there had been allegations made by her that Mr. Stroud accompanied her and allowed her to pet the leopard in some fashion,” Jones said.
Whether Stroud encouraged the woman to cross the fence and pet the leopard is part of what the investigation is trying to determine, Jones said. Stroud did not return a phone message or e-mail yesterday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will conduct a separate investigation, said Darby Holladay, a spokesman for the USDA-APHIS. That process could take several months.
A USDA inspector makes at least one unannounced visit to the zoo each year, and Ashe County Animal Control inspects it monthly.
The zoo had no prior violations in the county inspections.
The leopard had been at the zoo since August.
Last March, the Animal Protection Institute, a private non-profit animal advocacy group based in California, sent a letter to the USDA about a different animal at the New River Zoo.
The letter said that API’s investigators visited the zoo in October 2005 and saw the owner take a 6-month-old black leopard cub out of its pen and then let zoo volunteers walk the cub on a leash to let people touch it.
Holladay said that the USDA sent an inspector out in response.
In April, the USDA sent a warning letter for issues of housing, sanitation and animal handling, putting the New River Zoo on notice that if the issues were not resolved, further enforcement would occur. The USDA could fine Stroud, suspend his license or revoke it.
The zoo had no prior violations cited by the USDA.
Jones said that Ashe County Animal Control was not sent a copy of last spring’s letter from API and was made aware of it only during the current investigation.
The New River Zoo opened in 2001 under a variance to a 1995 county ordinance that prohibits “private possession of non-domestic animals which can be dangerous.” It was the county’s decision – not the USDA’s – to close the zoo temporarily. Jones said that the county investigation could take as long as a month.
Jones said that the zoo has been a good educational resource for Ashe County.
“There are no winners in this situation,” he said. “Certainly, Ms. Thomas is a victim. I feel like the cat’s a victim. It was a very hard decision to have to follow through (with euthanizing the leopard.) That was very tough for myself and the other officers.”
The Animal Protection Institute is highlighting last week’s leopard bite to call attention to an exotic-animal campaign. API submitted undercover video footage of the New River Zoo to the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, which ran a segment on exotic animals last night.
“It’s not people’s intention to have people get hurt, but that’s the nature of the beast, literally,” said Zibby Wilder, a spokeswoman for API.
* Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at 336-667-5691 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.