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Winchester zoo in compliance, but animal rights groups feel animal welfare is at risk

WINCHESTER, Va. - Tucked away at the end of a quiet, winding road, sits a home to animals you wouldn't normally see in Virginia.

Monkeys, linx, lions, tigers and bears call Wilson's Wild Animal Park Home.

A quick search of online reviews on Yelp shows that some people love the place. The park also has a large support on their Facebook page.

Steven, posted on Yelp in July and wrote that it's a "great local zoo for young kids and adults" and "their cages are always clean and animals always appear content.

However, a handful of other reviews show that people are troubled by the park.

The animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, calls the park a "roadside zoo" and says it has been on their radar for years.

"We saw absolutely no normal behavior at Wilson's Wild Animal Park," says Brittany Peet, director of Capital Animal Law Enforcement.

She walked through the zoo with DCW50.

"These are animals that are being denied everything that is natural and important to them."

Peet has a number of concerns, but among her main ones, she feels the enclosures are too small and the animals do not have enough to do.

She feels that is a violation of their federal license with the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA officials monitor the animals based on the Animal Welfare Act.

Peet also pointed out exhibits that do not display educational signs or had damaged signs, which she says, is a violation of their state permit.

The application requires that the exhibit is educational and either has information or educational brochures available.

Peet said she is most worried about the bears' condition, on the concrete, especially during the summer. 

She brought a thermometer that was unable to pick up the temperature on the bears' enclosure, but was able to pick up an enclosure nearby, reading 104 degrees in the sun.

"This is absolutely one of the worst bear enclosures that I have ever seen," she said to DCW50, while pointing at a bear that she noticed panting. "This bear is overheated, he is baking in the sun."

PETA sent letters to various agencies, including the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, detailing what they saw as permit violations, such as the educational signs.

The Humane Society of the United States' State Director, Matthew Gray-Keeling, says they also wrote letters about Wilson's.

"It is the source of a lot of complaints that we receive," he says.

A spokesperson for the state says Wilson's permit, strictly for exhibiting animals in the state of Virginia, is in good standing.

Wilson's license with the USDA, required for any facility that legally owns native and exotic animals, remains in good standing, too.

The USDA puts all of their inspection reports online. Under Wilson's reports, there are different "non-compliances" during yearly visits.

Some of the non-compliances addressed PETA's concerns.

They cited Wilson's for not having an environmental enrichment plan, which means the animals are provided with activities that allows them to behave like normal species.

From 2012 to 2016, the feds also cited the park six times for failure to modify a lion cage.

"It seems there is a real accident waiting to happen there," says Gray-Keeling. "They simply don't correct the problem."

A spokeswoman for the USDA says they are not currently investigating the park.

She says there are a number of avenues they can take when they investigate a park, which starts with specific and repeated non-compliances.

DCW 50 requested an interview with the owner of the park, Keith Wilson, on the day of our visit but he told us to leave the property.

He sent us a statement from his legal team, the Calvary Group:

"Wilson's Wild Animal Park is a legal business which meets regular inspection standards and works closely with licensed veterinarians.

Wilson's Wild Animal Park faces daily harassment from well-funded radical animal rights groups that know little, if anything, about the care of animals. They use misleading statements, false accusations, and propaganda about our facility, while putting forth photos of our animals taken out of context which serves as nothing more than a fundraiser for their deceptively named organizations which frequently use emotionally based, unscientific hype to destroy legal businesses which do not align with their 'animal rights' ideology.

Any false and defamatory statements made about Wilson's Wild Animal Park that are misleading with intent to damage the reputation of their legal business may prompt pursuit of all available avenues, criminal and civil, to remedy any harm."

Both PETA and the Humane Society say the system is part of the problem, saying the state officials usually rely on the USDA inspections, based on the Animal Welfare Act.

They say it has bare minimum standards, so not breaking the law, does not mean animals are necessarily in the best care.

 

 

"We need stronger, better protections in the Animal Welfare Act," says Gray-Keeling.