UPDATE: Wesa-A-Geh-Ya to close, owner says
Volunteer mauled Sunday has part of leg amputated
|Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, an exotic animal center in Warren County, was the site of a mauling Sunday. Owner Ken Smith told the Warren County Commission on Tuesday he plans to close the facility and send the animals to a sanctuary in Kentucky.|
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya owner Ken Smith announced Tuesday his plans to close the exotic animal center located in Warren County.
The decision spurs from Sunday’s tiger attack on volunteer Jacob Barr, the center’s lack of funding and past and present legal problems, Smith said.
"The whole purpose is to give the animals a better life and make it easier on myself, my wife and my family. I’ve got too many opponents against us with the animals," Smith told members of the Warren County Commission. "I’m not a quitter, but these animals deserve better. Our funding is cut off."
Barr, 26, of Warrenton was assisting another volunteer at the center in moving the tiger, named Hercules, from his cage for cleaning purposes when the tiger jumped the fence and attacked Barr, Smith said.
Barr was taken by helicopter to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where he underwent surgery.
Hospital officials said Tuesday that Barr had lost his leg below his knee, and was in fair condition.
When deputies with the Warren County Sheriff’s Department first arrived at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya after the mauling, they were led to believe Barr was attacked by a stray black and white pit bull that had been scared off by gunfire, Sheriff Kevin Harrison said.
"That was the story," Harrison said. "The Smiths stuck to that story, as did the volunteers."
After leaving the wildlife center, Harrison received a tip from a friend of the victim’s father, who said Barr was attacked by a tiger, which Smith had shot multiple times, killing it, and then put the body in a truck and transported it to a family member’s house in New Truxton, Harrison said.
After authorities returned to speak with Ken and Sandra Smith and volunteers about the new information, they acknowledged the incident was a tiger attack, Harrison said.
Ken Smith said the volunteers made up the pit bull attack story because they didn’t want to get the animals in trouble.
"When the sheriff came back, that’s when I told him," he said. "I’m the one who set the record straight."
The tiger’s body then was voluntarily surrendered to the sheriff’s department, which turned it over to the University of Missouri-Columbia veterinary school for an autopsy and to properly destroy the remains.
Smith said Tuesday the tiger that attacked Barr was Hercules — not Tony, as had been previously reported. Hercules had been rescued before living at the facility, Smith said.
But Dangerous Wild Animal Registration Forms filed with the sheriff’s department list Tony and Hercules as cage mates and both being born at the facility.
Smith said if he had to kill every animal at the center to get the "young man’s" leg back, he would.
"I was lucky we didn’t lose anyone’s life over it," he said.
Smith told commissioners all the exotic animals at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and their cages will be sent to a sanctuary in Kentucky, where they will receive better care and more legal protection.
Harrison said Smith’s decision, if followed through with, is in the best interest of the county and ultimately the more than 55 animals at the facility including tigers, lions, arctic wolves and a bear.
"I will commend them for turning over the care of these animals to a facility who has the ability to care for these animals," Harrison said. "Their intentions have always been honorable, but I think they lack the funding and the facility to adequately house and care for them."
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya has been the focus of legal dispute in the community for several years.
In 2004, the Smiths relinquished their U.S. Department of Agriculture license after the organization alleged the center did not have proper veterinary measures in place and did not employ properly trained staff. The move closed the center’s doors to the public.
Ken Smith was found guilty in May of not properly registering more than 55 animals at the facility. The ruling also determined that the facility was not an animal sanctuary.
On Tuesday, Smith entered a plea of guilty to Circuit Court Judge Wesly Dalton for failing to properly maintain accurate records as a wildlife breeder with the Missouri Department of Conservation and was required to pay up to a $100 fine.
But during interviews Ken Smith has consistently maintained his innocence.
"I’ve been accused of being guilty before I got to court," he told commissioners. "I got Warrenton justice. I didn’t get justice in that courtroom."
The Smiths have said that in the facility’s 21 years of operation, an animal has never escaped from the grounds. The facility first existed as a breeder in 1987 and then as a not-for-profit in 1998.
Sandra Smith said Sunday’s incident may have been prevented if the center were allowed to put in additional safety measures it requested, including a cover for the cages and a 12-foot chain-link fence surrounding the site’s 3,000-square-foot perimeter.
The Warren County Planning and Zoning Commission did not allow these changes, she said.
"This incident could have been avoided if people would have let us do the improvements we wanted to do," she said. "For nine years now, we’ve been fighting and fighting. We’ve not broke any laws out here. Accidents happen. It shouldn’t have happened."
Ken Smith added that as a caretaker of exotic animals, he can’t wait 30 days for the zoning commission to make a decision on whether he can make a cage bigger.
"I have to react to what the animal is telling me right then," he said, otherwise someone gets hurt.
County officials including Presiding Commissioner Arden Engelage and Planning and Zoning Coordinator Linda Gant told Smith Tuesday that nothing prohibited him from putting tops on existing cages.
Commissioners initially declined to comment, citing a pending investigation involving planning and zoning and the Smiths, but Engelage issued a prepared statement after Smith announced he would close the facility.
"After researching our records, back in 1995 they, the Smiths, were told if they wanted to do any improvements they would have to get a conditional-use permit," he said. "Since that time, we have no record of any conditional-use permit for cages or perimeter fences were ever asked for."
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