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More monkey business? Legislature weighs what kind of facilities can have large animals, primates in Minnesota

A bill addressing accreditation in the Minnesota House has pitted the owners of smaller zoos against the Humane Society and animal sanctuary organizations, including Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue. 

An image of a lion at the nonprofit Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone.
An image of a lion at the nonprofit Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone.
The Wildcat Sanctuary

Joan Hemker is worried about her monkeys. More specifically, she is worried Minnesota officials might limit the number of monkeys she can have.

To Hemker, it’s an issue of fairness. She co-owns Hemker Park & Zoo in the small Stearns County city of Freeport that faces regulations on buying and owning big cats, primates and other wildlife that bigger, well-heeled zoos don’t. That’s because a landmark 2004 law largely banning private ownership of such wildlife has several exemptions, including for zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a trade group whose standards have long been considered tops in the business.

But the Minnesota law doesn’t exempt zoos like Hemker’s, which are approved by the Zoological Association of America, an alternative group whose accreditation is cheaper to meet but who contend their standards are comparable.

But whether those standards are actually comparable are a subject of fierce debate, one that made its way to the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee last week in the form of a bill to exempt zoos with ZAA accreditation from the limits on animals like tigers, bears and gorillas.

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A coalition has lined up to oppose the measure that includes a prominent trade group of big cat sanctuaries (a group that includes, yes, Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue, made famous by the Netflix series “Tiger King”).

“Exempting ZAA could cause an influx in the number of dangerous animals to increase in our state, as well as the breeding and selling of these species,” said Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the nonprofit The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, which says it does not show its rescued animals to the public. “We don’t want to weaken a law that has worked for the past 17 years.”

Big wildlife law limits animals

Thies told lawmakers at a hearing last week that the 2004 law was in response to escapes, injuries and even a death at the hands of big cats in Minnesota. Animal control authorities removed more than two dozen big cats from one facility after the law passed because they had a history of attacks, Thies said. And since the bill was passed, there’s been a “dramatic decrease” in the number of big cats, bears and primates in the state, as well as a drop in related injuries from attacks, she said.

The state restrictions largely ban private ownership and breeding of big cats, primates and bears, though people who already had such animals before the law could keep and replace them once, as long as they meet a list of requirements such as registering with the state and notifying local police of any escapes. That’s how Hemker’s zoo has monkeys. The rules are enforced by law enforcement, not state regulators.

But those limits don’t apply to those with certain exceptions outlined in state law, which are mainly for facilities that meet other accreditation or regulation standards. For instance, licensed or accredited research and medical institutions, animal exhibitors part of a circus, rodeo, carnival or fair that are licensed by the federal government, certain game farms, wildlife sanctuaries and zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, says it does not show its rescued animals to the public.
House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee screen shot
Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the nonprofit The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, says it does not show its rescued animals to the public.
In a letter to the agriculture committee, Thies and Christine Coughlin, the Minnesota State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the AZA is a “highly regarded and established zoo and trade organization” that ensures “knowledgeable and experienced professionals provide care for animals in a safe environment at modern facilities.”

In Minnesota, there are only three zoos accredited by the AZA: The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in Saint Paul and the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth.

A new exemption for ZAA requested

State Rep. Paul Anderson, a Republican from Starbuck, introduced the bill in the Minnesota House that would also exempt ZAA-accredited facilities from the state wildlife law. He told the agriculture committee during a hearing last week that he brought the bill to help Hemker Park & Zoo, which is in his district.

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AZA accreditation is far more costly than ZAA — Hemker told MinnPost she estimates that it would cost her $30,000 to $50,000 to gain accreditation from the AZA. But the ZAA advertises annual dues to be between $1,250 to $5,500, depending on the size of the zoo, on top of $800 in application and inspection fees. “I can’t afford it,” Hemker said of the AZA. She also said without an exemption, local authorities are trying to regulate how many monkeys she can have. “I don’t necessarily want to bring anything more in,” Hemker said. “But what I want to do is keep what I have.”

State Rep. Paul Anderson, a Republican from Starbuck, introduced the bill in the Minnesota House that would also exempt ZAA-accredited facilities from the state wildlife law.
House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee screen shot
State Rep. Paul Anderson, a Republican from Starbuck, introduced the bill in the Minnesota House that would also exempt ZAA-accredited facilities from the state wildlife law.
She complained the rules are interpreted differently in other counties, and described the law as “biased” against ZAA standards.

The ZAA was formed in 2005, which is after the Minnesota law was passed, and the Hemker Park & Zoo is the only facility with accreditation in the state. Safari North in Brainerd is in the process of getting accreditation, said ZAA executive director John Seyjagat. 

“We think favoring one trade association over another is not fair, so why would AZA institutions get an exemption and ZAA not,” Seyjagat said in an interview. “They can do what they want, they can bring animals, they can sell animals, they can take animals across state lines and we can’t. That’s our involvement is to seek parity.”

Seyjagat also told the committee that a new exemption wouldn’t necessarily lead to a flood of new animals in Minnesota. Supporters have circulated a side-by-side comparison of standards between the two organizations in an effort to show their similarity.

Fierce objections

Still, the Humane Society and wildcat sanctuary groups have criticized the ZAA for what they say are lax rules. The letter from Thies and Coughlin says ZAA standards, and their implementation, are “far weaker than those of the AZA.”

“For example, ZAA has apparently developed no animal care manuals detailing professional animal care standards,” The letter says. “The AZA’s biologists, veterinarians, nutritionists, reproduction physiologists, behaviorists and researchers have developed nearly three dozen species-specific animal care manuals that are often more than 100 pages. 

“In response to criticisms about its inadequate standards, ZAA has started copying standards from AZA, but implementation appears to be lacking. Several facilities that lost AZA accreditation for serious problems such as financial instability, failing infrastructure, plummeting attendance, federal Animal Welfare Act violations, insufficient staffing, and inadequate animal care were subsequently accredited by ZAA.”

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John Madigan, Steering Committee Chair for the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance (the group that includes Baskin), said in a letter to the agriculture committee that the bill would weaken one of the country’s strongest laws restricting possession of dangerous wild animals.

Madigan wrote ZAA facilities wouldn’t have to register animals with local authorities or comply with other state-required safety, animal care and recordkeeping requirements.

“The BCSA is further concerned that this bill would have the consequence of inviting irresponsible exhibitors into the state who know they can meet the ZAA’s low standards, putting animals, keepers, and the public at risk,” Madigan’s letter says.

The Humane Society in 2014 complained of ZAA-accredited facilities breeding and exhibiting tigers, including controversial white tigers. The Como Zoo also wrote a letter opposing the bill.

The ZAA has its own connection to “Tiger King.” According to ZAA web archives, the organization had accredited until 2020 Myrtle Beach Safari, whose owner Bhagavan “Doc” Antle was charged that year in Virginia with felony wildlife trafficking, conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.

Will the bill move forward?

While the Republican-led bill was heard in a committee led by DFL Rep. Mike Sundin of Esko, the measure is not likely to advance in the House, which has a Democratic majority. 

Sundin declined an interview about the bill. But when asked if he supported the policy and whether it would be approved by his committee, Sundin said by text message: “I do not and it will not.”

While the Republican-led bill was heard in a committee led by DFL Rep. Mike Sundin of Esko, the measure is not likely to advance in the House, which has a Democratic majority.
House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee screen shot
While the Republican-led bill was heard in a committee led by DFL Rep. Mike Sundin of Esko, the measure is not likely to advance in the House, which has a Democratic majority.
Still, the measure is now scheduled for a hearing Monday in the Republican-led Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee.

As for Hemker, she stressed she feels ZAA has high standards and said the mission of the zoo she co-owns includes environmental conservation. “I’m trying to make it more fair,” she said of the law.