This Is the Place Heritage Park saw record attendance this spring, as promotion of the park’s adorable baby animals brought people to the parks in droves, small children in tow, to cuddle with baby rabbits, Shooter the goat, Snow White the lamb and others. But all of those warm fuzzies came with an unfortunate side effect: repeat animal-welfare problems cited by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.
In two reports from the USDA, covering three inspections of the park done in April and May 2013 (click to view), an inspector observed a total of 61 red flags in categories from basic record-keeping and sanitation to veterinary care and the “unacceptable” practice of euthanasia by gunshot.
A lack of trained staff and a failure to identify health problems and get timely veterinarian care were main issues cited in the USDA reports, which also noted that employee interviews revealed that “there have been a large number of animal deaths in the last year.”
The April inspections resulted in 10 total noncompliance issues, including three repeat issues. The May inspection resulted in nine total noncompliance issues, all repeat issues. Several issues and practices were noted as being in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, a federal law that requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for animals that are exhibited to the public.
This Is the Place, nestled in the foothills above Salt Lake City, pays homage to Utah’s hardy pioneer heritage and also hosts Baby Animal Days each spring. But the popularity of this year’s event demonstrated the problems that come with selling customers on the cuteness of baby animals without having a trained staff that knows what is humane and healthy for them.
Park staff says that record attendance numbers, which were 40 percent higher than in 2012, led to a lack of overall animal care by an overwhelmed staff.
“We had a huge increase in numbers from last year as far as attendance goes,” says Alex Stromberg, the park’s livery manager. “It took us a little off guard.”
He says the USDA inspections came as a wake-up call that helped the park reform animal policies, scale back exhibits, sell off many of the animals and hire more staff to focus on animal welfare.
The reports identified a long list of problems, including that animals were kept in unclean pens, standing in layers “several inches” deep of their own excrement, potentially exacerbating the poor health of the animals. Various animals were reported to have discharge in their eyes, and others were found to be severely malnourished.
Neither a USDA spokesperson nor Judy Davis, the USDA veterinarian who inspected This Is the Place, could be reached for comment by press time.
According to the reports, in one incident, animals who had been born only 30 minutes prior were being put on public display, even though the commotion from viewers made it difficult for the newborns to nurse properly from their mothers.
The first inspection report—filed May 1 and covering two April inspections—noted that staff was unable to identify serious health problems. A guest of the park had complained that a goat named Shooter was “moaning” and had an “abnormal” stomach. It took five days for a veterinarian to come and attend to the goat, who, according to the report, was “not bright and alert” and preferred to lie down unless forced to stand.
The second USDA report, dated May 24, identified repeat violations in almost every category mentioned in the previous report, including poor veterinary care that had led to the death of a newborn lamb between the two rounds of inspections. “There is no evidence the facility is recognizing the severity of the problems and obtaining veterinary care in an appropriate time frame,” the May report stated.
The report on the April inspections stated that a nanny pygmy goat, Olive, had been separated from her two kids and placed in the petting-zoo yard. The agitated goat “was observed chasing and butting one of the sick, approximately 2 1/2- to three-week-old lambs.”
The first report recommended that staff separate the animals, but the second report, filed May 24, noted that “Olive was not kept separated from the lamb Patches, and Olive subsequently caused traumatic injuries to the lamb that led to its death.”
Though staff had observed Patches having trouble standing up after the attack, the lamb received no treatment or veterinarian evaluation and died several days later.
The May report noted that interviews with employees revealed that few had adequate animal-care training and there wasn’t enough staff to properly monitor animals.
One report noted that no staff was present in April while children were picking up sick lambs like Snow White and chasing lambs in the pens. The handling of sick animals helps spread disease, a problem compounded by the fact that the park didn’t have a quarantine program in place until after the inspections were made. Several animals that were healthy during the April inspections had not been separated from sick animals and had since developed symptoms such as eye and nasal discharge.
Livery manager Stromberg says the park took the recommendations of the inspector seriously. Three new summer seasonal staff members were hired to be dedicated to the animal exhibit. Previously, he says, there would be no staff member inside the petting corral to supervise guest interaction or spot problems with the animals.
Stromberg says the park previously had an inefficient record-keeping process—staff members simply noted chores and wrote comments about animals if they noticed anything amiss. Now, the park’s daily log is animal-focused, with each animal receiving a daily assessment, which is logged in an iPad and printed off for park records. The better record-keeping has allowed Stromberg to get the park’s veterinarian, who works on contract, involved faster when incidents arise.
The inspections also helped correct other practices, such as euthanasia by gunshot.
The May 24 report noted that not only is putting an animal down execution-style disturbing to other animals, it’s also not an acceptable, humane form of euthanasia, according to the Animal Welfare Act, and is in violation of Salt Lake City ordinances. Since the inspections, that process is no longer in place at the park.
This Is the Place staff members say they feel they are now better equipped to look after the animals. A volunteer from Hogle Zoo stops by periodically to do mock inspections.
But a mid-July observation of the park by City Weekly painted a different picture from what was cited in the reports, which were severe enough to have resulted in serious fines or even a license revocation if left uncorrected. Water troughs—which at the time of the USDA inspections had “thick clumps of algae” that indicated they had not been cleaned in a long time—were clean, and an employee stood watch in the petting corral while a handful of children played with a few goats and a small potbellied pig rolled happily in the mud of a nearby stream.
An ox pen, however, appeared dirty, and a City Weekly photographer observed a pig with its feet in a feeding dish, which can spread fecal matter and lead to disease, as inspection reports noted.
Stromberg also noted that the park has seen the death of another animal since the May inspection, when a goat attempted to jump into a pigpen and caught its leg in the fence, breaking its leg.
“That was probably the hardest day I’ve had up here,” Stromberg says.
The trials of animals in parks or other facilities that aren’t zoos can often go unnoticed, as the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service inspectors are spread thin among the large number of zoos, research facilities and animal-breeding operations they are tasked with inspecting. Davis, the inspector who visited This Is the Place, is based out of Colorado, for example. And most states—including Utah—don’t have a state office that inspects such facilities to make sure animals are being taken care of.
Ultimately, one of This Is the Place’s most effective initiatives for improving animal care, according to park spokeswoman Tresha Kramer, was to sell off more than 20 animals.
“We’ve increased the staff, but we’ve also significantly decreased the number of animals so we can do better a job with the animals we’ve got,” Kramer says.