Unnatural Habitat

At Noah's Land, an exotic-animal park near Bastrop, the living conditions of some of the inhabitants are downright beastly.

Last August, Wylie veterinarian Michelle Glover got an unusual call: Can you see seven tiger cubs? The next day the two- to four-month-old animals—cuter than stuffed toys—arrived at her Northeast Texas clinic. Five of the cubs were in good enough shape to be released to a local animal sanctuary that had agreed to take them. But the two smallest ones were in a bad way. “Those two couldn’t even hold their heads up,” says Glover, who has experience treating exotic cats. “They were weak and dehydrated from a lack of proper nutrition, also anemic, and they had bloody diarrhea. Their stomachs were red and raw and had no hair. They were so skinny they looked like Holocaust victims.”

The cubs (all seven are fine now, by the way) had come from Noah’s Land Wildlife Park, an exotic-animal menagerie, petting zoo, and drive-through near the Central Texas town of Bastrop. If you happened to catch the news on certain Austin and San Antonio television and radio stations in late October and November, you might recognize the name of the place from its pleas for donations—pleas made more effective by the suggestion that animals might have to be sold or even euthanized if the managers lost their lease. But what has been less well publicized than the appeals and the money raised—$33,000 contributed by sympathetic listeners—is that since October Noah’s Land has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, infractions concerning the adequacy of the animals’ diet, shelter, sanitation, and veterinary care. (The USDA inspection reports do not make for fun reading. From October 19, 1999: “The 6 tigers and 1 bear in the cages by the office do not have adequate shelter from wind and rain.” From September 14, 2000: “There is a build up of bones and feces in the tiger enclosures in the drive thru which is creating an odor.” And from October 10, 2000: “A veterinarian was not called to examine the 2 thin white tail deer, the tiger cubs with the skin problem and the goat with the non healing fractured leg.”) Also not mentioned in the TV and radio news spots was the fact that the tiger cubs born at Noah’s Land since 1998—a baby boom of at least 26—were conceived at a time when the park didn’t have enough decent-sized enclosures for the big cats it already owned.

Noah’s Land is living proof of the need for better exotic-animal welfare laws in Texas and more people to enforce them, a need that is particularly acute given that the state has one of the largest populations of privately owned exotic animals in the country. Ever since Texas Parks and Wildlife stopped regulating exotic animals three years ago to concentrate on native wildlife, Texas has had no laws at the state level governing these creatures. That leaves the solution to cities and counties, which understandably tend to be more concerned with protecting people from exotic animals than the other way around. With a few exceptions, the only safety net for these animals in Texas is the federal government, specifically the inspectors of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Unfortunately, they are stretched to the breaking point: In the whole state of Texas, there are only five inspectors to cover 478 USDA-licensed animal exhibitors, breeders, and research outfits (Noah’s Land is classified as an exhibitor). Other regions are similarly stretched—there are only 75 inspectors nationwide. Unless a facility is under suspicion, it gets an unannounced visit only once a year. As one sanctuary owner says, “A lot of stuff goes on at some of these places when the USDA is not around.”

You might not see the small Noah’s Land signs on Farm Road 304 just before you get to the park, but you can’t miss the gateway, rising above the surrounding pastureland like an abandoned fifties drive-in. The park’s few small buildings sit on either side of the parking area. On the left side is a fenced petting zoo that is usually full of deer, goats, antelope, a rabbitlike Patagonian cavy, and several delighted children. On the other side of the lot are a row of outdoor cages containing leopards, foxes, and half-grown tigers; a visitors center; a roofed open area with cages for bears and more tigers; and the so-called monkey barn, a cinder-block building that is home to a few primates and cougars, a coatimundi, a bobcat, a macaw, and a dog, among other creatures. After you pay the $10 admission fee ($5 for children) and get a plastic cup of animal chow, you can drive along a winding three-mile road that passes through a surreal landscape of dead trees, the apparent victims of oak wilt. Emus and goats come trotting up for handouts, pink domestic pigs surround your car, and goats jump on the hood. You might spot a zebra and some bison; you’ll definitely see assorted African hoofed animals and a camel, plus enclosures containing adult lions, tigers, and bears—more than three hundred animals in all.

Indeed, if all you did was go on the drive-through—if you merely glanced at the animals up front—you could come away thinking that this isn’t a bad place, a little run-down but basically all right. Many visitors write comments in the online guest book like: “Loved it. Drove around the park 3 times. Took some wonderful pictures and had a great time.” And in all fairness, Noah’s Land has its good points. By and large, the animals are well fleshed-out. A number of the big cats live in large grassy enclosures that would be the envy of any small zoo. The park has taken in animals that were destined to become hunting trophies or were dumped by private owners, and according to its cash-flow report, it has provided medical care to the tune of $7,600 over a period of two years and four months. On top of that, everyone who works there puts in long, hard

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