Unnatural Habitat

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

February 2001By Comments

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 hours, and managers Rick and Cheri Watson have spent more than $94,000 of their own money to keep the place afloat.

But what you begin to notice—after you get over being charmed by the animals—is that money and labor are in short supply. The cages near the visitors center are small; the ones in the monkey barn are approximately eight feet by ten feet, the rest average ten by seventeen. While the animals in them can walk a few paces, they can’t run or exercise. (Shockingly, cages of this size are legal. Under federal regulations, an animal could spend its entire life in one.) A zookeeper who toured the place with me in August pointed out that the shelter in the cage housing three juvenile tigers is so small that “they couldn’t all fit in it if they wanted to or needed to.” For the most part, the animals do have toys, including bowling balls, small rubber balls, and tires, but not a lot. In the cage with two leopards, there are only concrete or metal surfaces for the animals to lie on, whether the temperature is freezing or broiling. When she saw it, the zookeeper said, “This is horrendous.” In the monkey barn, which is basically a walkway with cages on both sides, like an Old West jail, the only view of the outdoors is through the entryway. These stalls have a shelter from the weather and some of them have a single raised twelve-inch-wide board, like a bench; otherwise, the animals stand or lie on concrete 24 hours a day. Dampness seems to be a constant problem too. On our August visit, a baboon actually had clumps of algae on its nails. Because there are so few employees—between three and five full-time in the past few months—there is little time for anyone except volunteers (seven at the moment) and visitors to interact with the animals. When they do, the creatures have different reactions. Most, like the baboon, appear disinterested or bored. The tigers stand up and want to play. The bobcat flattens its ears and hisses. And in the next-to-last stall of the monkey barn, a black, spaniel-mix dog, a haunted creature, starts to bark and howl and whirl around in a tight circle anytime a person comes near.

When Rick and Cheri took over the management of the nine-year-old park in 1998, it had a checkered past. In 1995 founder and owner Richard Burns, a Houston-area businessman who was then running the park, was cited for fourteen violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Two years later he auctioned off many of the animals. When Burns needed a new manager in 1998, the Watsons applied for the job, even though they had no experience running an exotic-animal facility. “We thought, ‘Oooh, pick us!'” Rick says. They took charge of the business, leasing the property from Burns and keeping the revenues the park produced, and moved themselves and their three children into a house on the 275 acres. Forty-six-year-old Rick, a friendly and talkative man with owlish glasses and hair worn in a short ponytail, kept his position as director of continuous improvement with the Austin office of defense contractor BAE Systems (formerly Marconi, which merged with British Aerospace). Cheri, 49—with straight blond hair and an assessing gaze—ran the park day to day and also kept up her work as a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator specializing in deer, for which she is licensed by Texas Parks and Wildlife. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Noah’s Land became the Watsons’ life.

Over time, they developed a vision for the park that involved replacing all the small, inadequate cages up front and constructing a huge, $2 million tiger compound with ponds and a slide for up to one hundred of the water-loving cats. In an e-mail to a Noah’s Land board member, Rick waxed enthusiastic, “Can you see Tijar and especially Midas going down a water slide in front of customers!!!” There was just one problem: no money. The park, located on an obscure farm-to-market road, didn’t come close to breaking even. A big day was 25 or 30 cars. “Many times I would come home from work and empty my wallet to pay the employees and buy feed,” says Rick. Rent from the RV park that occupies part of the property helped only a little. With expenses averaging $130,000 a year, Rick and Cheri decided in mid-1998 to convert to nonprofit status for the tax advantages. They became the corporation’s executive directors; Rick became chairman of the board.

The scarcity of money and workers initiated a cascade of compromises, beginning with food. Zoos typically feed their big cats a commercial diet composed of horsemeat and beef laced with vitamins and minerals. From the beginning, Noah’s Land relied mainly on turkey carcasses donated by area poultry farms and occasional free beef from ranches and cattle auction barns. The only problem was that over-reliance on poultry can result in a serious calcium and phosphorus deficiency in big cats called metabolic bone disease—causing weak, easily broken bones, cataracts, and other ailments. The Animal Welfare Act specifies that food fed to animals must be wholesome and appropriate. In July the USDA informed Noah’s Land that the cats’ diet needed to be approved by a vet; it remained unapproved as of the November report.

Cleanliness was also a constant problem, not just in the large tiger compounds outside but in the kitchen where the animals’ food was prepared. Says Lynne Leone, an employee who became a board member: “Many times I washed roaches out of the baby tigers’ formula.” Former board member Rosemary Nisi of Dallas started out as an enthusiastic volunteer worker, raising $21,500 for the park, but she gradually became frustrated with what she saw going on. “Often the nipples for the baby bottles would be full of mold,” she says. “I used to bring Scrub and Bubbles, a disinfectant, and clean the nipples and the bottles really good.” Rick Watson denies this, saying that the nipples were kept clean.

Veterinary care was another problem repeatedly cited in the USDA reports. On four separate visits over a year, inspectors noted specific animals that were injured or sick and obviously should have been seen by a vet. Five animals that were written up as needing care on September 14 still had not received it when the inspector showed up again almost a month later. Sometimes minor medical care was rendered on-site by Cheri, but in a way that flew in the face of sanitary procedures. “When we would do IV’s—to introduce fluids if an animal was ill—often we would not use sterile needles out of a box; we would use one that might have been hanging there for a week and that had been used on another animal,” says Leone. “That happened the whole time I was there.” Rick maintains that they used clean needles and discarded them afterward.

Even though the staff was hard-pressed to keep up with the animals they already had, Rick and Cheri were loath to neuter any of the tigers. Rick said in July that he didn’t like the idea of “shutting down their life cycle.” (Under pressure from the USDA and helped by an anonymous October donation earmarked for neutering, they have now changed their position.) Thanks largely to the births, the tiger population peaked last summer at 43—far more than any zoo in the country and the second-largest population of any private facility in Texas, after Bridgeport Nature Center near Fort Worth. (Today Noah’s Land has 35 tigers, several having been moved elsewhere.) To explain away the tiger boom, visitors were told that the USDA had asked Noah’s Land to take in tigers, including pregnant females, as a humanitarian gesture. In fact, the USDA never recommended that any tigers be placed there; it only monitored the transfer of the animals, and none were pregnant.

The late summer and fall of 2000 was not a good time for Noah’s Land. Temperatures and emotions flared, particularly after Rosemary Nisi and her friend Carol Casey (an advisory board member) began to agitate for Rick and Cheri to stop the breeding and to let them move the seven baby tigers to the sanctuary in Wylie (an eighth tiger was also eventually moved). A month after they finally persuaded the Watsons, Nisi resigned from the board of directors. Shortly thereafter, Rick dissolved the advisory board (a separate body). In mid-October, board member Lynne Leone also resigned. In explaining their decisions, Nisi and Leone cited their frustration with many things they had seen at the animal park. The Watsons, for their part, felt that they had been abandoned by their former allies and fundraisers. Rick also accused them of stirring up the USDA and orchestrating a “hate campaign” of negative comments that showed up on the Noah’s Land Web site. The final blow came when the USDA informed Rick and Cheri that the park was under formal investigation. The process—which involves taking sworn testimony and examining records—was expected to take several months. If it results in legal action by the agency, the penalties could range from a warning to a fine to suspension of the park’s license. But as USDA investigator Jackie Freeman says, the agency doesn’t try to shut places down: “We would rather bring them into compliance.” Besides, where would 35 tigers go? Mainstream zoos don’t want so-called generic tigers like those at Noah’s Land, whose species integrity is not documented, and sanctuaries have only so much space.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from Noah’s Land, it is that wild animal parks and sanctuaries in Texas need considerably more scrutiny than they are getting. The current best hope for improvement at the state level lies in the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, a bill that will be introduced in the Legislature this session by state representative Toby Goodman of Arlington. The best part of the bill, as far as the animals are concerned, is its provision for improved caging standards. It would also authorize local animal-control officials to inspect the living conditions of privately owned exotics. Otherwise, it is almost identical to the federal Animal Welfare Act. Although the person who crafted the bill’s language, Dallas attorney Robert L. “Skip” Trimble, concedes that it has been watered down as a compromise measure, he still expects opposition from the Exotic Wildlife Association, the lobbying group for hunting ranches, and from individuals who believe they have a God-given right to own exotic animals. But while not perfect, the bill would at least provide another level of oversight and the possible deterrent of fines.

And so Noah’s Land moves into its third year under the present regime with a question mark hanging over its future. Surprise inspections have been occurring almost monthly, but as the USDA’s Freeman notes, closing the park would be unusual. Maybe the federal agency’s get-tough attitude—coupled with the influx of money and fresh, undisillusioned volunteers brought in by the TV appeals—will usher in a new era for the troubled wildlife park. For the animals’ sake, one can only hope.

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