Will exotics auctioned from closed MO game farm be safe?

Exotic Animal Paradise owner says he’ll screen the buyers at weekend auction of 450 creatures.

Didi Tang
News-Leader

Strafford — Connie Uchtman has little time left to spend with her babies.

“Spidey, do I get a Spidey kiss?” said Uchtman as she approached the cage for the spider monkey at the Exotic Animal Paradise on Wednesday morning.

The little creature stuck his mouth out and gave Uchtman the kiss.

Then, he squatted, reached out his hands, pulled the bottom of her pants up a little, and, as always, checked out her socks.

“He’s everybody’s baby,” said Uchtman, who has worked at the animal park for 81/2 years.

But this weekend, Uchtman will say goodbye to her job as well as the 450 animals at the park, including Spidey, who will all be auctioned off.

Exotic Animal Paradise outside Strafford is closing its gates after 35 years in business, and its owner, Ron Armitage, is selling all the animals, tools and equipment Friday and Saturday.

The park land has been sold to Tony Oddo, a developer in the Lake of the Ozarks area, who plans to build luxury homes.

Armitage said he hopes the animals will find good homes and he will refuse to sell if he believes the buyer is not suitable.

“We’ll do everything possibly we can to provide the animals with good, loving homes,” said Armitage, who expects a crowd of 500 to 600 from all over the country to show up for the nationally advertised auction.

Dickerson Park Zoo, however, won’t be there to purchase animals, said zoo spokeswoman Melinda Arnold.

“We can’t be there ethically,” said Arnold, citing the code of professional ethics by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the Springfield zoo is a member.

“Many, many times, those auctions are open to anyone, anyone regardless of their qualifications, the type of facility they have,” Arnold said.

“There’s not a lot of federal or state requirements,” she said.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture only regulates the import of exotic animals but not the sale, said Misti Preston, department spokeswoman.

The Missouri Department of Conservation only oversees the care of animals indigenous to Missouri, such as black bears, said Lynn Totten, accounting technician at the department.

Totten said she expects to answer inquiries from auctioneers at Lolli Brothers Livestock Market about the licensing status of buyers interested in native animals.

The auction firm from Macon is reputable, Totten said.

“They make regular calls to see (whether) someone has the paper that is valid, current and has no problem,” she said.

Armitage said he would also check the paperwork for buyers of animals regulated by the state agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The federal agency regulates big animals such as lions, Armitage said.

“We won’t sell to those without USDA-licensed and approved facilities,” he said.

Anybody can buy other animals such as small cats, birds, ostriches, emus, llamas, zebras and horses, Armitage said.

But local governments may place restrictions as to where the animals can live.

In Springfield, city ordinances prohibit “any dangerous or deadly snake or any dangerous or deadly reptile” inside the city.

That means Smiley, an allegator at the animal park, must find a home outside Springfield.

City residents cannot keep hogs, swine or pigs, either.

Without a property larger than 21,780 square feet, Springfield residents can keep no more than one cow, bull, jack, horse, goat or sheep, subject to a 100-foot setback requirement.

As for domestic fowl, they must be kept in a pen of at least 144 square feet in size and 50 feet away from any occupied building.

There is no rule against owning primates inside the city, but Ron Boyer of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department points to a recent advisory from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that discourages Missourians from keeping primates as pets.

The advisory said animals can pose physical threats and carry infectious diseases.

Animal ordinances differ from city to city, said Boyer, and rural areas may not have any regulations.

Armitage expects animal park operators and farmers to be the most likely buyers of his animals.

But, how can he tell the animals will go to good homes?

“Animal dealers are a small network of people,” Armitage said. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I know all the animal dealers.”

In other words, Armitage said he can tell whom the dealers are representing.

If a dealer represents hunting ranch owners, he will say no, Armitage said.

But that scenario is unlikely to occur, Armitage added.

Inside the park, Uchtman was making one of the final walks.

“Hello, Smiley,” she said as she passed the allegator pond.

After a short stay with Spidey, she had a chat with Casper and Chico, two cockatoos.

“Hi, I love you,” she said, gently touching the birds’ claws as they came to greet her.

Casper responded with some vocal sounds, and Uchtman smiled.

“Casper has a good vocabulary,” she said.

But the animal that she said she will miss the most is Jojo, a 7-month-old, diaper-wearing baboon that Uchtman has been taking home every night.

“He’s a handful,” said Uchtman, feeding a few marshmallows and M&M candies to the eager baby baboon.

“He’s spoiled,” she said.

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