South Sound News

Tacoma petting zoo fined, accused of animal neglect after deaths of sloth, anteater

TACOMA, Wash. — A Tacoma petting zoo that offered close-up visits with otters, sloths and other exotic animals recently was fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for mishandling animals and allowing dozens of people to be injured during visits, records show.

Failures at City Goat Farm and Zoo between April 2019 and February 2020 led to nearly 80 people being injured “in various degrees of seriousness” during encounters with animals, according to a citation from the USDA.

The citation also pointed out the deaths of two animals, a sloth and a type of anteater called a tamandua, as being a result of failure “to demonstrate adequate experience and knowledge of the species they maintain.” A fennec fox in the zoo’s care also was alleged to be so badly injured it had to have its leg amputated.

Issued July 27, the citation lists seven violations of the Animal Welfare Act related to handling animals, the structural strength of the petting zoo’s facilities and record keeping. The fine is $7,500.

When the incidents are reported to have taken place, City Goat Farm and Zoo operated an indoor petting zoo at 120 138th St. S. in Tacoma and an outdoor farm in Spanaway. The business was split up in June when Malisa Cloud took over the indoor petting zoo from previous owner Donald Miller.

Cloud, now the owner of Debbie Dolittle’s Animal Experience, said she no longer has exotic animals such as otters and sloths at the indoor petting zoo. She said the animals were moved to Miller’s outdoor farm where people can still visit with otters and other animals.

The indoor petting zoo received media attention in 2020 as it struggled to stay financially afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Q13 Fox reported that then-owner Miller was $200,000 in debt.

Miller said when he was contacted by the USDA he was given a choice between losing his license and a fine he said started at $11,500 that he was able to negotiate down to $7,500. Miller said staff at the petting zoo go over rules with visitors for interacting with the animals multiple times to try to keep them safe. He said people sometimes still don’t listen and get bitten.

Miller said no petting zoo sets out to have animals die in its care.

“It’s not what you’re out to do,” Miller said. “You’re out to enjoy them and let the public enjoy them and educate with them. When something like this happens, it devastates everyone.”

Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service discovered the sloth’s death during a Dec. 10, 2019 inspection. The female sloth, Malia, died Oct. 26, 2019 after falling from a climbing structure, according to the citation.

A necropsy of the sloth revealed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head. According to the citation, the necropsy also found the sloth was experiencing “severe emaciation,” had indications of chronic stress and signs of older bruising to the body not associated with the sloth’s fall.

“The results were found to be consistent with mishandling, neglect and ignorance of animal care,” the citation reads.

The death of the tamandua was discovered during a July 2, 2019 inspection. The animal died June 27, 2019. According to the citation, the petting zoo did not quarantine the animal after it took possession of it. The animal also allegedly suffered weight loss and was never examined by a veterinarian.

Miller disputed that the animal was never examined by a veterinarian. He said the petting zoo had a veterinarian on staff who examined animals weekly. Miller said the petting zoo had possession of the tamandua for only six or seven days before it died.

“We came in one morning, and it was just dead,” Miller said.

A month later, inspectors learned that an improperly secured metal ramp designed for ferrets was being used in an enclosure for three fennec foxes. According to the citation, a female fennec fox sustained a compound leg fracture and had to have the limb amputated.

The allegations list three incidents where patrons were bitten by otters or capybaras. In one incident with an otter, the bite broke skin and drew blood.

Photos on the business’s Facebook page show people petting otters lounging on a towel in their laps. Allegations in the citation related to mishandling animals state that the facility has failed to minimize the risk of harm to the animal and patrons by providing barriers or enough distance between people and animals.