- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 14, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A spider monkey with bones poking out of his foot, baboons with skin lesions or scarred tails, other primates with injuries thought to be caused by frostbite - those were the images that greeted federal officials during an inspection at the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari last year.

But the facility, which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the main force behind legislation signed into law last week that will relax the restrictions on who in Arkansas can own and breed primates.

The facility in Gentry, in northwest Arkansas, has defended its operations and says USDA rules change often. It pushed for the new state regulations after a 2013 law that it said threatened its ability to stay in business.

Federal officials have confirmed that the Safari is at the center of an investigation by the USDA’s Administrative Law Court. The Humane Society of the United States and Arkansas’ largest zoo cited the facility’s history of animal care infractions - including the 2013 choking death of a 7-month-old lion caused by a collar - in pleading with Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto the legislation.

The new law updates the 2013 measure that had allowed only facilities accredited by the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums to obtain or breed primates. Facilities or people who owned monkeys, chimpanzees or other primates before the law passed could keep them, but they had to register the animals with the local sheriff’s office and report any bites or injuries to the Arkansas Department of Health.

For the Safari, that meant once a monkey died, the business couldn’t replace it. It also meant the males and females had to be kept separate or be neutered.

“The AZA is too controlling and we had no desire to be a part of them,” said Leon Wilmoth, the son of the park’s owner. “We’ve been in business for 50 years and had primates for probably 45 years. To stay in business, we need to have the ability to breed and raise these primates or import primates into our facility.”

Under the new law, accreditation from any zoological agency is an acceptable prerequisite to obtain or breed primates. Wilmoth said the Safari has been working on accreditation through the Zoological Association of America for more than a year.

When the USDA inspection occurred in January 2014, Wilmoth said, the primate house was 47 degrees - 2 degrees above the USDA requirement. But inspectors reported sores and lesions on feet, scrotums and tails of multiple species of monkeys.

“Primates fight. We have a lot of respect for the USDA and their rules, but sometimes they change the rules right under you,” Wilmoth said.

The USDA also reported issues including expired medication for the animals, dirty habitats, feces in food and water containers and several species including lemurs that were able to get out of their enclosures. A 2002 story by The Associated Press reported a 1998 federal investigation into an employee of the facility who was indicted for selling four tigers from the Safari that were later killed for their pelts and sold to an underground tiger meat operation.

Arkansas Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, said Friday that he was unaware of the investigation of the Safari or the inspection records. But he said the information would not have changed his mind about sponsoring the bill to help the facility.

“The investigation proves that the system is working,” Douglas said. “We don’t want to have regulation so tight that we are prohibiting business, but we want them to be stringent enough to make sure that the public and all of the animals are safe.”

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