DEADWOOD | Opponents of a proposed petting zoo planned for this gold camp-turned tourist town say they are not just crying wolf when they claim the attraction is actually a front for a Minnesota fur farm and should not be allowed to operate.
The opponents, more than 100,000 of whom have signed an online petition against the attraction, claim that animals including wolves and foxes would be on display for a time but may eventually be butchered for their hides. They also claim the animals at the petting zoo — which would be the second location for a firm already operating in Minnesota — would include breeds that should not be caged, and that visitors to the site could be put in danger.
Meanwhile, the owner of Fur-Ever-Wild says opponents are just slinging slanderous lies in hopes of shutting down her plans to establish a Deadwood attraction that she says would educate visitors about wolves, foxes, bobcats and other wild animals. Fur-Ever-Wild owner Terri Petter says she cares deeply for her animals and that some have been alive and well for more than a decade at her similar attraction in Minnesota.
The Deadwood Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the attraction’s zoning request May 6, over the objections of about 40 local residents and business owners in attendance. Mayor Chuck Turbiville and City Planner Bob Nelson Jr. said last week that the commission's hands were tied when it came to authorizing the business, planned for a 17-acre parcel at 305 Cliff St. on the city’s south side.
“The question was, `Does it meet zoning requirements?’ and the answer to that is `yes,’” Turbiville said. “We have no responsibility or requirements beyond that. The city and planning and zoning’s hands are tied. We need to leave the discussion up to the state and the feds, because in this case the city is not a permit-issuing entity.”
On Wednesday, the South Dakota Animal Industry Board will consider an application by Petter for a captive non-domestic mammal possession permit, according to State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven. In a relatively rare move, the 7-member board will conduct a hearing in Pierre to listen to objections to the planned Deadwood attraction, Oedekoven said.
“It’s rare we have a hearing for a possession permit,” he said. “I think it reflects the nature of the issue and how social media is being used to bring this issue into the public view.”
Oedekoven was referring to the online petition opposed to the permit that as of Friday had attracted 103,798 signatures.
Contacted Friday at her Lakeville, Minn. farm, Petter said she planned to attend Wednesday’s hearing with her business partner and attorney, then transport six wolf pups and seven fox kits to Deadwood, where Fur-Ever Wild would open within two weeks.
“We can educate more people that way, with having a second location,” Petter said. “People come to Deadwood from all over.”
Asked about the passionate opposition she faced and claims that her attraction is simply a front for a fur farm, Petter dispelled what she called “lies” and said she had one wolf that was 12 years old and an arctic fox that was 13.
“The accusations are ridiculous,” she said. “Our visitors have seen the same animals year after year. They even know their names and identify with the animals. Opponents are twisting facts and it’s libel and it’s slander.”
Opponents of Fur-Ever-Wild claim Petter’s operation is a front for a fur farm and that wolves, foxes and other animals with valuable, sought-after pelts are being raised and shown purely for profit, without consideration for the animals’ welfare, health or maintenance.
A top critic of the petting zoo proposal is Shari Crouch Kosel, chair and co-founder of SD FACTS (South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together), who is one of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s “2015 Top 10 Animal Defenders in America.” Kosel is a Deer Mountain resident who was recently honored by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who proclaimed May 5 “Shari Crouch Kosel Day in South Dakota” for her ongoing work to combat cruelty to animals.
“She is a fur farm. Everything she raises is killed for fur,” Kosel said last week. “They say that’s a lie; that they all die of old age. But in court documents, Terri Petter, the owner, testified under oath that everything is killed for its fur and they usually do it in winter when they are in prime and their fur is a thick winter coat. They kill every animal they have for fur except her pigs and goats."
Kosel added: “So the animals that will be at the Deadwood petting zoo, the wolf and fox puppies you will be petting today, will be killed in coming winters solely for their fur."
Kosel said she expected to be joined by at least a dozen Deadwood residents and business owners at Wednesday’s hearing in Pierre, where they will testify about poor conditions at Petter’s Minnesota facility and potential threats to the health of the animals and the safety of visitors at the planned South Dakota operation.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” Kosel said. “The main problem is breeding wild, exotic animals in captivity for the sole purpose of making a monetary gain. Any reputable wildlife sanctuary fixes their animals as soon as they get them and dreams of a day when there are no more wild animals to save, because wild animals are meant to be wild. This woman does the exact opposite.”
Worries over image
Mary “Chip” Tautkus, owner of Chubby Chipmunk Hand-Dipped Chocolate Shop at 420 Cliff St., is one of the opponents of Fur-Ever-Wild who plans to attend the hearing with Kosel. Tautkus said last week that the planned attraction would give Deadwood a black eye.
“As I’ve done research, what has shocked me is the whole concept of a wolf petting zoo right on the main drag leading into Deadwood,” she said. “She is trying to come in here and pretend this is a nice, friendly petting zoo. But, this isn’t what these animals are meant for. This is about making money on these animals until they are old enough to have a prime coat, then they are killed, skinned and sold off to the highest bidder."
She worries about how displaying animals in cages will reflect upon the city of Deadwood. "if this is allowed, we’ll look like a money-grubbing town. Animals are a big part of people’s lives and we don’t need them in cages. Our visitors want to see deer running free and buffalo roaming and this won’t do our reputation any good,” Tautkus said.
Lead City Commissioner Denise Parker, who retired from the Navy as a command master chief in 1996 after 26 years, said she began studying wolves in the wild after her husband died in a plane crash.
Parker said she investigated plans for Fur-Ever-Wild after driving by the site and talking to the previous property owner. The plans for the petting zoo triggered online searches and a call to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., she said.
“I spoke with the center’s education outreach coordinator and I was immediately told this place, headquartered in Minnesota, had an awful reputation as it related to the care of its animals,” Parker said. “It caused me to dig deeper and as we pulled away the layers of the onion, the picture we uncovered became worse and worse."
Parker said caging wolves is not an acceptable practice. “As an educator of wildlife, as all naturalists are, I know it’s not a good thing to tell people it’s OK to pet what is supposed to be a wild animal,” she added. “Plus as tight a family unit as wolves have, the thought of pulling a wolf pup away from its mother before its eyes are even open was abhorrent to me.”
Petter, 40, said she acquired her first wolf 22 years ago, had been raised to respect Mother Nature, and was an avid sportswoman, angler and hunter who protected all of the wolves, fox, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, prairie dogs, whitetail deer, goats, horses, chickens and sheep she keeps on her 100-acre farm 40 minutes south of downtown Minneapolis.
“I am here with my animals 24-7 and I’m the type of person, when someone does something inappropriate, whether they are a volunteer or an employee, they are immediately gone,” she said. “I protect my animals with my life and I always will.”
Petter said the way the online petition was worded, she would have likely signed it.
“There’s a name for it when someone brings in panic and everybody panics,” she said. “There is a petition with 40,000 signatures out there that demands the government build a death star by 2016. Out of all the people that signed, I have had two people physically talk to me and I’ve had probably six emails that I’ve responded to that weren’t death threats. I’ve also had many people tell me that after reading my Facebook page, they have taken their names off the petition.”
Petter also said all of the proceeds from her Minnesota attraction had been re-invested in improved facilities and the care of her animals.
“We don’t drive fancy vehicles, go on vacation or have Coach purses, designer clothes or $200 tennis shoes,” she said. “Everything we get in goes back to the animals. Our new cougar enclosure cost $8,000 to build. You have to make money in order to take care of these animals. We spend every year to build bigger and better and the people who have come here can attest to that. We’re constantly improving.”