Wild at Heart Wildlife Center could be evicted

GLADES COUNTY — The Wild at Heart Wildlife Center in rural Glades County is once again a source of controversy.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
A pair of tigers live in a roomy and FWC-approved enclosure at Wild at Heart Wildlife Center.

Recently, allegations were made on Facebook that the Wild at Heart Wildlife Center on Southwest Rucks Dairy Road was unsafe and poorly maintained; that in the event of a hurricane the public would be in danger, and; that the animals were not being properly cared for. As proof of these allegations, a 44-page report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was offered to anyone who wished to examine it.

The report contained the following information.
• May 25, 2018 — The baboon enclosure was found to need repairs.
• Sept. 6, 2018 — A follow-up to the May visit was done to inspect the baboon enclosure and inspect the venomous reptile facility. During that inspection, they were found to be in violation because three of the animals’ cages had a buildup of fecal and/or food waste in them. Some of them also needed to be vented to prevent noxious odors. The baboon enclosures were reportedly not repaired, but actually worse than they’d been in May and were in an unsafe condition. No violations at all were found in reference to the venomous reptile facility.
• Nov. 5, 2018 — The FWC received a complaint by phone alleging the tiger feeding exhibits were unsafe, the lions were in poor health, the leopard did not have water and the female baboon was incompatible with the male baboon she was paired with; the perimeter fence was unlocked and that it was down; the facility was failing to feed the animals appropriately; that a fox had escaped and was not reported; and that Wild at Heart owner Jeremy Hargett was keeping venomous reptiles in his home. When asked how she knew these things, the woman reportedly said she followed them on Facebook but had not been there since the Hargetts took over.
FWC Officer Jesse Alford went back to the facility to investigate the claims and to do a follow-up to the May and September inspections on Nov. 8. The inspection report by Officer Alford states that upon his arrival, both Jeremy and Jamie Hargett were inside the facility working and the perimeter gate was closed. They reportedly began the inspection by walking around the facility inspecting enclosures for sanitation. The report states the enclosures appear to have been freshly raked and cleaned, and Officer Alford reported seeing no food waste inside the enclosures.

The baboon enclosure was inspected next and was found to have been repaired since the previous inspection, with the work either meeting or exceeding regulations. The report concluded that all issues from the previous inspection had been corrected, and no violations were found at that time. No evidence was found to support any of the allegations, and they were all determined to be unfounded.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Jaime Hargett of Wild at Heart Wildlife Center holds up an alligator snapping turtle.

At this time, the Hargetts are in the midst of a court battle as Myrtle Island Ranch, in the control of Sue Pearce, attempts to evict them from the property. According to the Hargetts, when they came here to take over the wildlife center at Ms. Pearce’s request, they were given a 99-year lease, but now she wants them out. Mrs. Hargett said they actually have three leases because FWC didn’t like the original lease because it was marked up, crossed out and written all over. They said it was a legal document and should be neatly typed, and they could not accept it. She explained that the second lease gave them the park for $1 a year for 99 years. Then they ended up doing a third lease, she said, a couple of Thanksgivings ago. They went over to Ms. Pearce’s daughter’s house, and Earl “Dock” Pearce signed the third lease on Ms. Pearce’s back, said Mrs. Hargett. She said the third lease was the same as the second but added in the home they are renting. Now, she said, Ms. Pearce claims that lease was forged. Her husband since has died, on Oct. 19, 2018.

The Hargetts said they believe their problems began with Ms. Pearce when she realized she would not be able to come and go from the park as she pleased. After the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FWC took her licenses in 2016, she had to agree not to seek any licenses to care for wildlife for three years, but she was not barred from volunteering at the park. The Hargetts believe Ms. Pearce thought she would have keys to the place and would be able to have free access to the park, but because of liability, they cannot allow that. They also ran into problems when they began to downsize their collection of animals. Mr. Hargett said he knew he had to get rid of some of the animals when he took over. There were just too many, and they immediately began seeking new homes for some of them, but when Ms. Pearce discovered some of the cats were leaving, he said she was not happy at all.

The Hargetts said they have trouble with fundraising because every time they post a fundraiser, someone spreads lies about them, and it makes it difficult to raise money and to get volunteers. For example, someone has been telling people that the black leopard is in an unsafe cage because it does not have a double entry. In reality, he said, the leopard has what is called a lockout cage, which is much safer. If the animal is not tame, the lockout is safer. JD has only about 20% of his vision and he will attack you, Mr. Hargett said. A lockout cage is a safer choice for him.

Mrs. Hargett said they feel very disheartened. They came here to help and have invested so much time and money, but they feel as though the community hates them. In three years, they have raised approximately $6,000 in donations and right now they have one volunteer, a 16-year-old who helps with lawn maintenance. It is all they can do to take care of the cleaning and feeding every day, and then they try to make time for tours on top of that. She said most of the time when people come out she wonders whether they are there just to set them up. Are they there just to find fault and go back and tell the rest of the town how the couple are failing? It makes life very difficult, she said.

Until the eviction hearing on July 10, the Hargetts are going on with life as usual, but they both also face significant health challenges of their own. Every day is pretty much the same when you are taking care of lions and tigers and lemurs — not to mention a 1-year-old baby. After the hearing, they don’t know what will happen.

Either they will continue on as they have been, or they will be homeless, because every penny has been spent on this place, they said.

Ms. Pearce chose not to comment at this time.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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