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Animal House 

Charlotte Metro Zoo has been cited over a dozen times by the USDA. Critics wonder why it's still open.

Less than an hour's drive from Charlotte in Rowan County, Charlotte Metro Zoo boasts -- along with our city's name -- a stable of over 100 animals, including baboons, chimpanzees, bears, wolves, camels, kangaroos, llamas, some 30 big cats, and nearly a dozen small, exotic cats. Steve Macaluso, the owner of the wildlife collection, has for years been criticized by animal rights activists. Groups like PETA have alleged Macaluso guilty of everything from overbreeding, taking baby animals from their mothers prematurely for commercial purposes, fasting the animals, keeping them in isolation or in inappropriate groups, and failing to provide proper shelter. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued numerous "non-compliance" citations to the zoo, including: failure to provide big cats with a veterinarian-approved diet, failure to maintain and clean enclosures, and failure to provide shelter from the elements. There have also been several well-publicized cases of animals escaping from the zoo, including a 1997 incident when a chimpanzee named Sydney broke free and roamed the area for a week, scaring nearby residents. As animal control officers attempted to return Sydney to his cage, the chimp broke free and bit a TV cameraman twice on the arm. This incident resulted in a USDA investigation and a $750 fine.

In 1998, two lions from the zoo, which were being used as entertainment at Renaissance festivals, mauled a man as he was cleaning their cage. The victim was flown by helicopter to a trauma center where he was treated for wounds to his head, leg, and face.

In October 2000, Animal Control officials had to assist Macaluso in a search for a leopard cub and a tiger cub after Macaluso lost control of his vehicle and crashed while returning from a photo shoot with the animals.

Despite these infractions, escapes, injuries and incidents, the zoo continues to operate. Macaluso insists he's been unfairly persecuted and falsely portrayed, and that his zoo is a safe and dignified habitat for animals that provides entertainment and education to the public. An estimated 15,000 people visited his zoo last year.

Smaller "roadside zoos" like Charlotte Metro Zoo are increasingly finding themselves the target of animal welfare advocates, who say these smaller outfits don't have the money or resources to adequately care for the animals, especially when compared to attractions like the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro. The Asheboro zoo is one of five operations in the state accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), which has its own set of guidelines and regulations.

"Generally speaking, the AZA is against the operation of these smaller roadside zoos because they cannot provide the adequate care, nutrition or facilities for these animals," says Rod Hackney, PR director of the NC Zoological Park. "Plus, one of the most important roles of the modern zoo is to educate the people who come and see the animals. This is another area where the smaller roadside operations do not have the resources to do that."

"I think it's like a sideshow at the old fairs," says Debra Sikes, of Charlotte Animal Control. "It's fine if you're an animal lover and know how to take care of them and handle them. But I just don't know about these kinds of places. Somebody's got to be responsible for those animals."

Toothless Inspectors
Although the facility is called the Charlotte Metro Zoo, it's not located in the Charlotte metro area, but rather north of the city in Rowan County; moreover, both Charlotte and Mecklenburg County ordinances forbid any person to keep or maintain wild or exotic animals.

Macaluso moved from Matthews and opened Charlotte Metro Zoo in 1996. "I just always loved animals," he says. "I've had animals all my life. When I moved from Matthews I had two tigers, three lions, two leopards and some monkeys. They were my private pets, and I just decided to open up a zoo."

Prior to that, however, he had a few run-ins with neighbors and wildlife personnel. The Dallas Morning News reported on January 8, 1995 that Macaluso's neighbors in Hemby Bridge, NC circulated petitions and threatened legal action because they feared for their children's safety should animals escape from chain-link cages behind his house. According to the Greensboro News & Record, on April 4, 1995, officials with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission removed a cougar and a bobcat from Macaluso's backyard, as keeping the animals violated state wildlife regulations.

The Charlotte Metro Zoo operates legally as an exotic animal exhibitor, licensed by the USDA. It is, in essence, a privately owned collection of exotic "pets," the care of which is outlined in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), and administered by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or, in this case, exhibited to the public. Those who operate these facilities must provide their animals with adequate care and treatment, including proper housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. To ensure that all licensed and registered facilities continue to comply with the Act, APHIS inspectors make unannounced inspections at least once annually.

"During these inspections we write down anything that's not in compliance," says USDA spokesperson Jim Rogers. "But it's not considered a violation, and it doesn't carry any sort of penalty. But it is merit-based -- the worse you are, the more often we're there."

USDA records show that Charlotte Metro Zoo was inspected three times last year. The first visit was on February 26, during which time the zoo was cited for failure to correct a previous violation -- not providing four individually housed primates with proper environment enhancement, namely to be able to see and hear other primates, to promote their psychological well-being. There were also citations for overcrowding, and for not giving animals access to heated or adequate shelter. The zoo was also cited for inadequate feeding. The inspector wrote: "Adult cats are currently being fasted every other day. This is more frequent that normal, professionally accepted fasting schedules."

Owner Steve Macaluso responds, "Some people recommend fasting three or four times a week. Unfortunately, USDA does not allow you to fast more than twice a week. Prior to that, yes, I'll be honest, I used to fast them three times a week. My cats are healthy as can be. A lot of the stuff that I have to do is done because the government makes me do it. If the government didn't make me go to two days a week, I would be fasting every other day."

On June 6, 2002, the zoo was cited once again for failure to provide an individually housed primate -- in this case a chimp named J.R. -- with the proper environment enhancement to meets its social and psychological needs. "Since this chimp is housed alone, it needs even greater amounts of enrichment to occupy his time," the inspector wrote.

The zoo was also cited for failure to provide adequate veterinary care to a lion named Bongo, who died on May 4, 2002. The inspector wrote, "It appears the licensee did not contact the veterinarian and convey the observation of abnormal condition when the lion showed signs of illness. The medical records of this animal were spotty, making it very difficult to determine if adequate care was given"

The zoo's final inspection last year came on October 9. For the third time, it was cited for not providing adequate housing for J.R. the chimp. "Individually housed primates must be able to see and hear primates of their own compatible species," the inspector wrote. "Singly-housed chimp still cannot see other primates."

When I visited the zoo a few weeks ago, J.R. was still housed in solitary. When asked about this, Macaluso explained that he had to get rid of his other chimp, and that the "USDA was not thrilled with that."

"Being that we have other primates, the USDA says that it's got to see another primate," Macaluso says. "Well, I totally disagree with that. To help solve the problem, there's a very good chance we're going to get rid of the one chimp we have right now. I'm going to send it to a friend with a female chimp that's looking to breed. Then when we're ready, we'll bring that chimp back. Not that it will make the chimp any happier; the only reason I'm doing it is because the USDA wrote us up."

Between 1998 and 2001 the zoo was inspected at least nine times, including on October 11, 2001, when the facility was cited for failure to provide a veterinarian-approved diet to the big cats. The inspector wrote, "Lion and tiger cubs do not have adequate space to get away from the presence of the public. Animals must be provided a rest period between performances (picture-taking). . . .Animals currently are on display from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m."

"It's News To Me"

So how is it that Charlotte Metro Zoo is allowed to stay open for business? Aren't over a dozen citations in five years a bit excessive?

"We don't classify or rank," responds Rogers of the USDA. "We don't have a way to quantify that. The Animal Welfare Act, which is the law that we regulate under, is extremely comprehensive. So if we go out and do an inspection and see anything that doesn't meet the regulations, it's going to get noted. Non-compliant items on inspection reports are not uncommon."

And that, critics say, is a big part of the problem.

"Yes, non-compliant citations are not unusual," says Amy Rhodes, a spokesperson for PETA. "In fact, it's a disgrace that the USDA allows exhibitors to repeatedly fall short of their minimal standards while they typically do nothing other than give the exhibitor time to correct the problem, regardless of how serious it may be.

"Inspection reports on Charlotte Metro Zoo show chronic, serious problems that should not have gone unaddressed this long," Rhodes continues. "Sadly, there are countless facilities across the country that have equally troubling citations, but the numerous and repeated citations Charlotte Metro Zoo have amassed are particularly disturbing."

If an inspection reveals deficiencies in meeting the AWA standards and regulations, the inspector instructs the facility to correct the problems within a given timeframe. If the deficiencies have remained uncorrected by the time of the follow-up inspection, APHIS considers possible legal action. Some cases are resolved with Official Notices of Warning or agency stipulation letters, which set civil penalties for the infractions. Civil penalties include cease-and-desist orders, fines, and license suspensions or revocations. If APHIS officials determine that an alleged AWA violation warrants more action, APHIS submits all evidence to the USDA for further legal review.

"The case may be settled out of court, which means no violation, but they agree to take whatever action both sides agreed to," says the USDA's Rogers. "Or the case can go before an administrative law judge. If they're found guilty, then they are charged with a violation."

The USDA currently has 99 inspectors nationwide. They are controlled from two offices, one in Raleigh, and one in Fort Collins, CO. Rogers explains, "The inspectors are more or less like traveling salesmen. They have a region within which they operate. They pretty much know what's going on within their region. If you've never had a problem in the 10 years you've been licensed, they're going to know they don't need to be out there every other week. But at the same time, if they notice things are not being fixed, they'll keep on it."

The number of repeat offenses that show up time and time again in the Charlotte Metro Zoo's inspection reports suggest there's a glitch in the system. In addition to the USDA's federal regulations, there are also local and state officials charged with enforcing animal cruelty laws.

Does the USDA supercede these agencies? "Not necessarily," Rogers explains. "The Animal Welfare Act sets the minimum federal standards. If the county requires higher standards, you have to follow those. If the county standards are lower, you have to meet ours. So a county or state can do their own thing, but they still have to follow federal regulations. Say, in a purely hypothetical sense, you have a tiger and you're beating it with an ax handle. That would obviously violate our regulations. However, it would also violate local and state animal cruelty statutes. Local authorities could press animal cruelty charges even though the USDA is pressing charges for violations against the Animal Welfare Act."

We contacted Clay Martin, supervisor of the Rowan County Animal Shelter, the county in which Charlotte Metro Zoo is located. Martin said his organization doesn't oversee Charlotte Metro Zoo, and that the USDA is responsible for inspections and writing violations. Asked if he thought the numerous USDA citations written to Charlotte Metro Zoo warranted any action from his department, Martin responded, "I didn't know the USDA had issued them any. That's news to me."

Critics say that a lack of communication and the inspection process in general -- one that is convoluted and mired in red tape -- makes it difficult for any real corrective action to be taken.

"The local animal protection authority is charged with enforcing local and state cruelty to animals laws," says Rhodes of PETA. "However, oftentimes local and state agencies defer to the USDA and choose not to investigate possible violations of local and/or state law. This is unfortunate for the animals because the USDA prosecutes only a handful of the more than 10,000 facilities it licenses each year. Egregious violations, like those Charlotte Metro Zoo has been cited for, go virtually unchecked. Meanwhile, the animals continue to suffer at the hands of greedy individuals who breed, sell and exhibit animals for no other reason than profit."

As one might anticipate, Macaluso isn't exactly a big fan of PETA. He claims that, among other things, they're guilty of funding terrorism, and they're currently running a program trying to get milk taken out of all the public schools and replaced with beer.

"PETA is a bunch of idiots that no one cares about anymore," he says. "Their credibility is down to nothing."

In response to some of PETA's charges, such as that he separates baby cats from their mothers too early, Macaluso responds, "PETA says I've pulled my babies away at one day old. Our babies stay with the parents 14 days. The only time we pull a cat before 14 days is sometimes the mother will abandon the baby. I can either let it die in the cage, or I can pull it and raise it myself. We have pulled a couple of babies at a day or two old and every time it dies. My gut instinct is the reason why the mother abandons the cat is because she knows something is wrong with them."

PETA has also accused Macaluso of drugging some of his cats during photo shoots. Macaluso responds, "A lot people are jealous that I can take 150-pound cat, bring it to a mall, tell the cat to sit up on a block, and it will sit there, and I'll allow your two-month old child to sit next to my tiger and take a picture."

In response to the overall criticism that it's wrong to put wild animals in cages for profit, Macaluso says, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If it wasn't for people like me the average person would never get to see a wild animal like a tiger, a bear or leopard. Is it fair the animals are behind bars? That's like saying if you've never had a phone, and never knew what a phone was, are you missing anything in life? No, because you never had it. Would I like to see the animals in the wild? Yes, I would like to see every animal in every zoo in the wild. Unfortunately, we cannot do that because man is destroying their habitats. So somebody needs to take care of these animals. And that's what our zoos are for. If it wasn't for zoos like us ,a lot of these animals would be extinct and your children and your children's children would never get to see a tiger."

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