Wildlife facility has new managers

Special to the Glades County Democrat/FWC Inadequate cage sizes at Animal Adventures were noted by Florida Wildlife Commission investigators in September. The new managers say the new enclosures will be half again larger than the minimum required by FWC.

Animal Adventures, a non-profit wildlife facility in rural Glades County, is under new management. First order of business is to make sure the cages and fences are secure, said Jamie Hargett, who along with her husband Jeremy, took over operation of the troubled wildlife facility last week.

The Hargetts plan changes at Animal Adventures, starting with reducing the number of animals there and providing the remaining animals with larger enclosures.

Four of the facility’s dozen tigers already have transfers to other facilities in the works.

“We’ll still have tigers,” said Mrs. Hargett, “Just not as many.

Another change: Animal Adventures will no longer be a breeding facility, she said.

“If you can’t afford upkeep, you don’t need to breed,” Mrs. Hargett added, noting that the veterinarian bills for a pregnant tiger “are outrageous.”

She said she understands tigers were bred there in the past but she does not know how many.  One of the tigers currently at the facility was born there.

Mrs. Hargett said Florida Wildlife Commission has given them 30 days to make repairs and start to get the wildlife facility back on track. She said at that point, if FWC is not satisfied with the progress they have made, Animal Adventures will be closed and all of the animals will be transferred to other wildlife centers, or, in the case of some of the older animals, they could be euthanized.

After the 30 day inspection, if the Hargetts are making good progress, FWC will give them another 30 days, she continued. At the end of the 60 day period, the facility will have to pass the FWC inspection.

FWC inspectors met with the Hargetts at Animal Adventures on Dec. 2, she said. “We spent five hours going over everything.”

It will be at least six months before the facility will reopen to the public. There is no reopening date on the calendar.

“We want to make sure everything is 100 percent,” she said.

Mrs. Hargett said she and her husband are currently paying for the repairs to the facility themselves. They plan to start a fundraising campaign for the non-profit facility. She added that they will also be contacting local businesses, asking for donations of lumber, fencing and other supplies.
The meat for the carnivores is already donated by a grocery chain.

Mrs. Hargett said that instead of cages, they would like for the animals to have habitats. She said the enclosures will have at least one and half times the space required by FWC regulations.

All of the enclosures will be built with materials that meet FWC standards, she added.

The facility is currently on 5 acres. The Hargetts have leased 10 acres, so it could double in size to accommodate the larger enclosures. She said they also have an option to lease more land on the 1,100 acre former dairy property.

The Hargetts are now living next door to Animal Adventures. She said they can see some of the animal cages from their front door.

They have a separate business that deals with venomous snakes, but that is not and will not be part of Animal Adventures, she explained. She said the only snake on the Animal Adventures property is a Burmese python.

After the facility is in good shape, they plan to add other animals, such as hyenas. Usually these animals come from rescues or from private owners who can no longer take care of them. She said they also make referrals to other wildlife centers.

Mrs. Hargett said they want to reassure their Glades County neighbors that the facility will be secure and the animals well cared for. They plan to start a new facebook page and regularly post photos, videos and live feeds so anyone who is interested can follow their progress.

Once the facility is secure, they will also welcome volunteers to help at the non-profit wildlife center.
Previous owner lost licenses

The wild animal facility — off State Road 70 near the Glades/Okeechobee county line — was cited by FWC in September for unsafe and unsanitary conditions as well as record keeping violations.

As a result of the charges that stemmed from that investigation, Mary Sue Pearce, the owner/operator of Animal Adventures, agreed to surrender her wildlife permits and transfer all of the wild animals in her possession to another licensed individual. Ms. Pearce signed a Deferred Prosecution Agreement following a hearing in Glades County court on Nov. 28.

According to the Florida Wildlife Commission report, on Sept. 2, FWC captive wildlife investigators conducted an inspection in response to a complaint at Animal Adventures, Inc., located on a 1,100 acre property off Rucks Dairy Road in Glades County.

Numerous violations pertaining to the record keeping, housing and care of captive wildlife were observed during that inspection, and the facility’s permittee, Mary Sue Pearce, was issued numerous citations and warnings for the violations, the FWC report continues.

The cited violations included failure to provide animals with clean water daily, failure to keep cages and enclosures free of feces, as well as issues involving the sizes and security of some enclosures.

At the time of the Aug. 31 and Sept. 2 inspections, the FWC Investigator Richard Doricchi noted violations involving the care of American alligators, captive exotic birds, two African spurred tortoises, two Coatimundis, a brown lemur, 13 tigers, a Tigon, three female lions, one male lion, a black bear, two cougars, two baboons, an iguana, a black leopard and a bobcat.

After a follow-up inspection on Sept. 14, Investigator Doricchi noted that two of the lions and the tigon had been transferred to other facilities. He also noted that one tiger had been euthanized and was buried in a shallow grave on the property.

At a hearing on Nov. 28, Ms. Pearce signed an agreement with the State Attorney’s Office whereby she would transfer all captive wildlife previously in her possession to another properly licensed individual. The agreement also states Ms. Pearce will not seek any new wildlife permits for a period of three years.
Animal Adventures was licensed by the FWC for Class I, II and III wildlife.

The whistle blower

Sherry Dewald had been a volunteer at the facility when it first opened, but she had not visited since she moved away more than two years ago.

She said she learned about problems at the facility in July when Ms. Pearce called her to ask for help.
“In July she called and asked if I would help get things back on track,” she said. Ms. Dewald said she agreed to drive over from Tampa.

“I was mortified by what I saw,” she said, adding that she could not believe how bad the conditions had become in a relatively short time.

“I’ve never seen a facility as bad as hers,” she said. “And that facility is only 6 years old. Apparently, no maintenance has been done.

“Two and a half years ago, it was fine,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what happened. But there’s no reason for an animal to not have clean water.”

Ms. Dewald said there had been heavy rains that week and some of the animals were up to their knees in water.

“I got on my hands and knees and dug a little ditch to drain the water off the cages,” she said, noting that it did not appear that anyone had made any effort to address the flooding problem before she arrived.

“It was deplorable,” she said.

“Sue wanted me to come and help fix this. I couldn’t fix this.

“There were feces, urine and maggots in the water tubs,” she said.

When the facility first opened, care and feeding of the animals was done by Ms. Pearce and volunteers. Ms. Dewald said there was no paid staff, but Ms. Pearce’s daughter-in-law helped feed the animals a few days a week. She said the fenced area that houses Animal Adventures is about 5 acres. Originally, there had been plans to expand the area for the animals, but that never materialized, she said.

Over the years, the volunteers quit coming, she said.

Caring for so many wild animals is hard work, Ms. Dewald explained. For one person, it would take from sunrise to sunset every day to clean all of the enclosures and feed and water the animals, she estimated.
Ms. Dewald said that in July she encouraged Ms. Pearce to downsize and move some of the animals to other facilities.

“I’ve worked with exotics for the past 30 years,” she said. “I got on the phone and lined up homes for the animals.”

She said that two of the big cats were rehomed while she was there. But Ms. Pearce refused to let go of any more animals, she added.

Ms. Dewald said she was concerned not only for the animals but also for the people who could be endangered if the animals escape their enclosures.

Ms. Dewald said she called FWC.

“Even an untrained eye can tell you this is not safe,” she said. “I’m really surprised there has not been an animal escape.”

She said if Hurricane Matthew had come further inland, the enclosures would not have survived hurricane force winds.

“If the hurricane had come in, 90 percent of these animals would have been loose,” she said.

Ms. Dewald said she does not know Mr. Hargett, but she has communicated with him online, and he has assured her that the facility will be repaired, cleaned up and brought into compliance with the FWC regulations.

She said Mr. Hargett also told her that he is in the process of moving his cobras and other venomous reptiles to the property.

While she is skeptical that anyone could bring the facility up to code, she wishes the Hargetts well.
“I hope it goes right by the animals,” she said.

Prior FWC inspections

According to Mr. Klepper, facilities that house Class I wildlife typically receive two inspections per year. Facilities licensed for Class I wildlife are not prohibited from breeding or legally selling (to another properly licensed facility) animals in their possession.

Prior to Aug. 31, the facility had last been inspected by FWC on May 11, 2016. At that time, the inspectors noted safety violations, but the animals did appear to be fed, provided with fresh water and the cages cleaned.

In his report May 11 report, FWC Investigator Doricchi wrote that Mary Sue Pearce was not at the facility when he visited, and Rebecca Pearce accompanied the investigators on their inspection.
According to the report, when the investigators asked to see documentation required to be kept at the facility, Rebecca Pearce did not know where the paperwork was.

“Investigator Douglas and I observed multiple violations that raised great concern and a potential public safety issue,” Investigator Doricchi wrote. “The violation is that there were multiple guillotine doors that are being utilized as entrances for lock down areas. Investigator Douglas and I observed the guillotine doors leading to the outside of the cage, and part of the lock down area were not secured by a locking mechanism (i.e. key lock and chain). This raised great concern in that there was nothing preventing any person from gaining access to the inside of the cage, or preventing the animals from escape if both guillotine doors were to be opened. Rebecca was unaware of the issue.

“Other violations noted are as follows:

• Rusty U nails connecting the fencing to wooden posts. This was noted on the majority of the enclosures.

• Rusting on the actual caging of the bear enclosure primarily on the roof of the cage as well as the lock down/den.

• On the baboon enclosure, there is a hole in the fence where a cage tunnel is connected. Per Rebecca, this is where the baboons would go through to be locked down. This is no longer utilized as a lock down method. The hole does not look secure and needs to be properly patched to prevent escape.

• Also on the baboon enclosure, there is a hole with daylight that if left unattended could allow escape.

• Two separate tiger enclosures have bamboo growing through the fencing that will cause the integrity of the caging to be compromised.

• One cage had a lion present with no claw log.

• The leopard’s cage had one post with chain link that had no connecting material.

• A tiger cage located at the north end block with the “Tigon” had rust that needs to be patched.

• The alligator enclosure at the north end of the exhibit had multiple spots where the fence was compressed and has over growth that is compromising the integrity of the fence.

• The perimeter fence along the north end of the property has severe over growth that is compromising the integrity of the structure as well as dropping it below the required 8’ minimum height requirement.

• The bottom of the perimeter fence along the north end of the property has a weak spot where it can come off the ground approximately 1 to 2 feet.

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