Wild animal facility owner loses permits

OKEECHOBEE — Lions, tigers, a bear and other wild animals at Animal Adventures in Glades County face an uncertain future.

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.

“FWC investigators take this matter very seriously and conducted a thorough investigation. We’ll continue to work with all of the facilities we license to ensure that they are taking the proper steps to keep people safe and provide proper care for the captive wildlife in their possession,” said Major Rob Beaton, FWC Law Enforcement Captive Wildlife Section.

Under the terms of the agreement signed Nov. 29, Ms. Pearce must seek a new licensee to take over the facility and pass an initial inspection with no violations. In the event that no such licensee can be found, or that an initial inspection cannot be passed, Ms. Pearce must sell or otherwise legally dispose of all animals in her possession or control. Should a new licensee be found to take over the facility, Ms. Pearce shall not be the primary caretaker of the animals, the agreement states.

While the deadline date on the agreement is Dec. 15, 2016, FWC Public Information officer Rob Klepper stated that “if Ms. Pearce does not comply with the deferred prosecution agreement, the State Attorney would make a determination as to the subsequent action taken.

“The FWC has and will continue to work with Ms. Pearce and Animal Adventures to frequently monitor the progress made as to the location, housing and status of the captive wildlife being transferred in compliance with the deferred prosecution agreement. FWC investigators will monitor transfers to ensure that animals are being transferred to properly licensed facilities or individuals, but transfer records for captive wildlife are kept at the facility at which the animal is possessed, and any records of sales or transfers submitted to FWC are exempt from public record,” he added.

A Facebook message

The newspaper’s attempts to reach Ms. Pearce for comment were unsuccessful.

Just after midnight on Nov. 30, Ms. Pearce posted the following message to Facebook: “Believe what you want but realize that a story snowballs way out of the reality of the situation. I am not going to give explanations in response to all the facebook accusations and threats … My animals were signed over to my good friends several weeks ago. I did that to protect them. All the paperwork has been completed for Jeremy Hargett and Jamie Hargett to lease my facility. I had my last court today (Nov. 29) and almost everything in the order had already been completed. I can now move on to praying to try and forgive the people who tried to destroy me. Sorry, but all you did with your misconstrued pictures and false allegations was to push me to finalize what was in the planning for over a year. My cats are happy, healthy and well fed … I will still be helping out with the animals when I’m needed but plan to spend a lot of time just being with them and finally having the time to “stop and smell the roses.” It’s been a rough 6 months but I have realized no matter how hard you try, people are still going to spread the drama.”

The newspaper’s attempts to reach Mr. Hargett for comment were unsuccessful.

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.

FWC documented rotted wood and exposed hardware in the bear enclosure lock out area. Courtesy of FWC.

FWC documented rotted wood and exposed hardware in the bear enclosure lock out area. Courtesy of FWC.

“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.

This is from the August 31 inspection by FWC.

This is from the August 31 inspection by FWC.

“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 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.

“Mr. Hargett’s application is being treated as a new application which will require the facility to pass FWC inspection prior to acquiring a license. FWC investigators will work with the new operator to ensure that any and all facility deficiencies are corrected in a timely manner,” stated Mr. Klepper.

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. Click, 2016-05-11-inspection-animal-adventures, for the May 11 report.

According to the report, when the inspectors 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.

“I spoke with Sue Pearce via telephone on 5/11/16 at approximately 1630 hrs. I advised her of the issue with the guillotine doors not being secured and that it was a major public safety issue that needs to be addressed and brought into compliance immediately. She advised she would be back in town by Friday, May 13, 2016 to secure the doors. I also advised her of the over growth on the perimeter fencing and not having any required documents at the facility. She advised the documents should be in her office. I am going to meet with her on 5/13/16 to ensure the guillotine doors are locked, secured and in compliance, and also address the other violations noted during the inspection. No warnings or citations have been issued at this time.”

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