‘Worst roadside zoo in the country’ closed for good after PETA lawsuit

‘Worst roadside zoo in the country’ closed for good after PETA lawsuit

The attractions at Waccatee Zoo included lemurs with abnormal growths on their bellies and a tortoise with a deformed and splitting shell, according to a 2022 lawsuit from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Lila, an ailing tiger, died sometime between late 2020 and 2021 after becoming so emaciated that her spine curved and her skeleton was visible through her skin, the lawsuit alleged.

The Myrtle Beach, S.C., roadside zoo exhibited over 460 animals but forced them to live in “needless suffering,” court documents state. The zoo allegedly housed animals in small enclosures and failed to properly feed and clean them, leaving them malnourished and hobbled by various injuries and behavioral tics.

PETA sued Waccatee Zoo and its owner and operators in April last year, citing photos of the zoo’s animals, a fine against the zoo issued by the U.S. Agriculture Department and a raft of one-star reviews online. It closed months later.

Now, it will never reopen. PETA announced Thursday that it had reached a settlement that will keep the zoo closed and bar Waccatee Zoo’s operators from owning wild or exotic animals, breeding domestic animals or working at any other roadside zoos.

Reese Boyd III, an attorney for Waccatee Zoo’s owner and operators, confirmed the terms of the settlement and told The Washington Post that the defendants settled due to the expense of litigation. He added that they denied the allegations from PETA’s announcement and its lawsuit and that the settlement contained no admission of wrongdoing.

Waccatee Zoo was established in 1988 and kept its animals in poor conditions for decades, PETA general counsel Brittany Peet told The Post.

“We ended up starting to call it the worst roadside zoo in the country,” Peet said.

Peet said PETA’s lawsuit was a last-resort measure after numerous complaints from authorities and the public. PETA received over 150 complaints from members of the public about conditions at Waccatee Zoo, and the USDA cited the zoo for more than 100 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, eventually fining it in 2022, the lawsuit alleged.

PETA alleged that Waccatee Zoo engaged in harmful actions while housing its animals, which included a range of exotic exhibits like macaques, cockatoos and an oryx. The zoo’s enclosures, many of which consisted of metal cages, were too small for animals, leaving them isolated, bored and frustrated, according to the complaint. Many animals allegedly swayed and paced back and forth in their enclosures.

Waccatee staff did not clean enclosures, leaving old food, feces and dried urine in animals’ environments, according to the complaint. Animals were not provided adequate veterinary care and were observed with overgrown hoofs, abnormal growths and ulcerous wounds, the complaint states.

Several animals died in the zoo, including leopards Liza and Eolis, a chimpanzee named Chico and Lila the tiger, according to the complaint. Lila had languished for months, Peet said, eventually losing all of her fur before dying in a malnourished state.

“A lot of them didn’t make it out,” Peet said. “… [Lila] died and we couldn’t let that happen to any more animals.”

Boyd said Lila’s hair loss was due to an autoimmune disorder, not anything to do with the zoo’s care. The tiger died of old age at over 20 years old, and a USDA cat expert found her to be in good health during the later stage of her life, the attorney said. Tigers can have a life span of about 20 years in captivity.

In February 2022, the USDA fined Waccatee Zoo $7,800 for several alleged Animal Welfare Act violations, including having animals with overgrown hoofs and maintaining receptacles filled with murky water and brown sludge.

Peet said no further action was taken until PETA, joined by two South Carolina residents who had visited the zoo, sued Waccatee Zoo. Months after the lawsuit was filed, PETA claimed the zoo attempted to evade scrutiny by transferring its animals to another zoo after abruptly closing in September. PETA and its co-plaintiffs filed an emergency motion that month to prevent the animals from being moved but were too late to stop the transfer, Peet said.

A private investigator hired by PETA determined that Waccatee Zoo had transferred the majority of its 400 or so animals to a roadside zoo in North Carolina, Peet said. Many were then sold to buyers across the country in livestock auctions, she alleged.

The zoo was left unmaintained, and some animals were released onto its grounds, Peet said. PETA claimed it was unable to determine how many animals were left behind because of gaps in Waccatee Zoo’s records, but PETA rescued and relocated the final nine animals in the zoo — two bears, a llama and six emus — in May, the organization announced.

Boyd said the zoo’s operators closed the business in September when their USDA license expired. He denied the allegations raised by Peet.

The settlement of the lawsuit will prevent the reopening of Waccatee Zoo. There was no punitive payment as part of the settlement’s terms, Peet said.

PETA is still working to track down the animals transferred from the zoo, she added.

“If people are compelled by the story of Waccatee Zoo and of Lila, they [should] avoid roadside zoos,” Peet said. “The best way to prevent another Waccatee is to simply never buy a ticket.”

‘Worst roadside zoo in the country’ closed for good after PETA lawsuit

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