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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO A capuchin snacks on a treat Friday at the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari in Gentry. The safari is undergoing renovations and the owners hope to reopen this weekend.

GENTRY -- The Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari agreed to pay a $75,000 fine and shut down temporarily to settle a complaint that alleged numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

The safari's Animal Welfare Act license was suspended for 60 days starting Jan. 1. The suspension was to continue until the safari successfully passed inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to an agreement signed by both sides in June 2018.

Safari history

The Gentry park is a family enterprise that traces its origins to the 1960s, when Ross Wilmoth obtained his first three buffalo. His collection of animals slowly grew. The family began charging admission in 1975. Ross Wilmoth died in 2005, but the family decided to keep the operation going. About four years ago, admission rates were increased to $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 3 to 12.

Source: Staff report

The safari passed those inspections, but it remains closed so additional maintenance work can be completed, mainly to the roads inside the park, said Charles Wilmoth, the safari's animal and park manager.

They hope to reopen this weekend, the beginning of spring break for Arkansas and Oklahoma public schools. It's the safari's busiest week of the year, according to the owners.

A sign at the main entrance states, "We will be closed Jan. 1, 2019 thru Feb. 28, 2019 for a major maintenance project." Projects have ranged from fixing fences to redoing the flooring in the chimp barn, Wilmoth said.

"Every week we made a punch list of things to do," said Linda Hook, business manager.

It's the longest the safari has been closed since it opened to the public in the early 1970s, according to Hook.

The 400-acre safari is home to a variety of exotic animals -- more than 800 in all -- including tigers, monkeys, kangaroos and wildebeests. It includes a four-mile drive-through loop and walk-through areas for interaction with animals. Guests may take rides on camels and ponies.

The Department of Agriculture filed a complaint in January 2017 accusing the safari of 68 instances in which it violated regulations from 2012 to 2016.

The allegations ranged from 13 cases of failure to provide adequate veterinarian care to 43 instances of animals kept in dirty or otherwise inadequate conditions.

The complaint accused the safari of willfully violating regulations at least six times by failing to have sufficient distance and/or barriers between animals and the public.

Specific instances cited in the complaint included a spider monkey that lost several digits after developing frostbite on its hands and feet and a 7-month-old lion wearing a collar that caused it to strangle itself.

The $75,000 fine marks at least the fourth time the safari has had to pay for alleged violations of department regulations. The safari paid fines of $8,000 in 1998, $10,000 in 2002 and $3,094 in 2008.

The department inspected the safari in June 2018. The report of that inspection is the most recent posted online. It indicated no violations were found.

Wilmoth believes the safari's troubles with the department are a thing of the past. One thing that's helped is the department seems more receptive to communicating regularly than it was before, he said.

"I was texting our inspector just now," Wilmoth said Friday. "We text quite often, I'd say once or twice a month. We've gotten more direct communication with our inspector."

The safari was able to afford the fine, but owners had to postpone some capital improvement projects, such as paving the parking lot, Wilmoth said.

The safari has made several additions and improvements in the past couple of years. A pavilion with picnic tables was completed in 2017. Additional restrooms opened last June. Sidewalks emblazoned with images of animals were added in the walk-through area.

A new barn for hippos and rhinos is under construction, as is a small building called the nursery, where the snakes and other reptiles will live, Wilmoth said.

The extended closing allowed staff members to get some projects done that would be hard to do with customers present, Wilmoth said. They've discussed closing for a few days at a time during future off-seasons -- January and February -- to catch up on maintenance projects.

The safari has drawn a mix of good and bad reviews over the years. A 2014 article published by USA Today listed it as the fourth-best animal safari in the country, calling it a "must see" for those visiting Arkansas.

Some animal-rights activists, however, have complained about conditions. A representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on the government to revoke the safari's license after the department's 2017 complaint was released.

NW News on 03/11/2019

Print Headline: Gentry attraction pays price for 2017 complaint

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