Burlco's Animal Kingdom still plagued with problems

Megan Goodwin and mother Myrna of Bristol feed a capuchin. The zoo quietly reopened after a fatal blaze.
Megan Goodwin and mother Myrna of Bristol feed a capuchin. The zoo quietly reopened after a fatal blaze. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 03, 2012

On a steamy July day, children visiting the trouble-plagued Animal Kingdom Zoo in Burlington County giggled and shouted, "Hi, Mr. Monkey," as a band of white-faced capuchins raced to the front of their cages.

Squawking, the monkeys flocked around a white plastic chute that delivers unusual treats into their pens. The zoo sells buckets of popcorn, marshmallows, and Froot Loops for customers to feed the more than 150 hyenas, wolves, llamas, three-toed sloths, and other exotic and domestic species on display behind a boarded-up pet shop.

Visitors have been trickling back to the zoo in rural Springfield Township since April, six months after a spectacular fire killed a mother giraffe, her 3-week-old calf, 15 parrots, four cats, and three dogs. Plans call for the seven surviving giraffes to return this month from their temporary quarters at Six Flags Great Adventure in nearby Jackson Township.

Since the fire, the unaccredited zoo has replaced rusting shelters, built a new barn, and cleaned up storage areas filled with spoiled fruit and excessive flies to address some of its long history of violations.

But within a month of reopening, it was in trouble again - after a monkey bit a 2-year-old girl.

Over the last dozen years, Animal Kingdom has been cited for more than 200 violations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency that regulates 2,800 licensed animal exhibitors in the country.

Many exhibitors have few or no violations after their annual inspections, according to a USDA spokesman. Animal Kingdom almost always has had multiple violations after a USDA visit, as many as 74 in 2005.

Four days before the Oct. 30 blaze, the USDA issued a warning letter, putting the zoo on notice that it could be fined or have its license revoked. At that time, inspectors found 19 violations - a high score compared with other New Jersey licensees - and noted many instances of animal neglect, squalor, and disrepair.

"A large male red kangaroo was observed to be thin with visible ribs showing"; the floor of the food storage cooler was covered with "rotted fruit, animal hair, and other debris"; and the giraffes' enclosure had rotted wood, with protruding nails that could injure the animals.

State police determined the fire was accidental, likely caused by electrical problems in the storage area of the giraffe barn.

In November, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked USDA to investigate whether the animal deaths could have been prevented. The giraffes were "crushed to death when a wall collapsed on them," and that could have been related to the structural deficiencies that the zoo inspectors found before the fire, Delcianna Winkers, a PETA director, wrote in a Nov. 9 letter.

She received no response. Instead, USDA issued another warning letter Nov. 11. When inspectors returned to the zoo Nov. 21, they found six repeat violations, and a hyena with fresh scrapes around his eyes and "a large, gaping wound" on his back from a rusty, sharp metal edge above the entrance to his shelter.

After the hyena was put on medication and repairs were made, the zoo's license was renewed.

David Sacks, USDA spokesman, said he didn't know what happened to the kangaroo or specifics about any of the other violations. But since the kangaroo wasn't mentioned in November reports, he assumed the issue was addressed.

"There was nothing wrong with that kangaroo," zoo owner Burton Sipp said when asked about the report. He characterized the citations as "minute things that inspectors find to justify their jobs."

Sipp, 68, lives in Ohio and has spent much of his time over the last decade training racehorses across the country. He hires staff to run the zoo.

At the time of the zoo fire, Sipp was in Arizona.

A few months earlier, his wife, Bridget, was killed in a house fire on their 38-acre zoo property.

State police said that April 11, 2011, fire was also accidental and likely started with a faulty kitchen appliance.

"It was a terrible tragedy," said Sipp, who was out of town at the time. Sipp opened the zoo in 1988 and operated it until Bridget took over in 2001, he said.

Sipp has not rebuilt their home, and now plans to sell the property and the zoo. "I want to retire and travel," he said.

The zoo reopened without fanfare when spring arrived. "The people started showing up, and I let them come in to see the animals," zoo curator Jose Ortiz said.

But soon, there was a new issue. A child was bitten by a monkey that had reached through its cage to grab popcorn from her tiny hand. She had slipped beneath the wide slats of a wooden fence that surrounded a cage containing spider monkeys and a larger primate, said the girl's mother, Sharon Harker of Trenton.

"Just when I went to grab her, the [larger] monkey bit her thumb and pointer finger," Harker said.

The girl was shaken from the May 12 incident, Harker said, but the cuts were minor. Harker was really upset, she said, when the zoo owner later told her that the zoo had no immunization records, because they had burned in the fire.

"How can you open up to the public when you have no vaccine records?" Harker asked. "These are exotic monkeys, and you don't know what kind of diseases they're carrying."

The county Health Department had to quarantine the monkeys.

Failure to produce veterinary records for the animals is a violation that appeared repeatedly over the years on the zoo's inspection records.

"That's a concern," said Sacks of the USDA. Only after receiving inquiries last week from The Inquirer was that violation cleared up.

After the monkey incident, the USDA and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife each sent inspectors to the zoo to check on conditions. But neither followed up on the violations they found until July 24, when they revisited the zoo, together, after a reporter asked whether the problems had been addressed.

At the time, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife said inspectors had issued a $200 fine against Sipp for not having adequate fencing. They were supposed to return within 30 days to check for corrections.

When inspectors returned July 24, they waived the fine because Sipp had installed plastic mesh around the fences, the spokesman said.

While the animal treats seem unorthodox, the inspectors have "no issue" with them because the popcorn is unsalted and because monkey biscuits were part of the mix when the agency visited, he said.

The USDA inspectors, for their part, finally were able to verify that the animals had been seen by a veterinarian, after previously being told the records were maintained off the premises, Sacks said.

In an interview, Sipp said he went into the zoo business after he ran into difficulties with the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Racing Commissions. They suspended his licenses in the 1980s after he was investigated for race-fixing and charged with doping and other infractions. Later, he agreed to be a state witness in a case against four jockeys, avoiding prosecution over race-fixing.

Other charges of insurance fraud in the death of his horses were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to witness tampering in 1984. Eventually, he got a license to run horses in Ohio and other states and, about 11 years ago, returned to horse training.

Even Sipp's early days of running the zoo caused controversy. When the zoning board allowed him to open the zoo in 1988, it specifically prohibited lions, tigers, cats, bears, poisonous reptiles, elephants, and rhinoceroses. About a decade later, the board discovered that bears and big cats had been added to the exhibit, said Denis Germano, the board's solicitor.

Sipp "always did what he wanted and asked for permission after he was caught and being prosecuted," Germano said.

Sipp sued the town in state Superior Court to keep the prohibited animals. The court dismissed his case, and he was forced to find them new homes.

In 2002, five giraffes died, and their necropsy reports attributed three deaths to anemia, emaciation, parasites and/or a hookworm infestation. USDA inspectors said proper veterinary care might have saved some of them.

In 2005, three siamangs suffered severe frostbite after inspectors had warned the zoo not to leave the apes outside during the winter. The USDA issued another warning letter.

PETA's Winkers said the organization was frustrated with the dearth of action by the USDA and was weighing litigation against the agency. PETA urges "compassionate people to boycott roadside zoos" that have frequent animal-welfare violations, she said.

Sipp dismisses PETA as "a moneymaking organization" and interprets Animal Kingdom's record as clean, except for "very minor" problems.

"I built the zoo from scratch," Sipp said, saying he had no regrets. Still, he said, "it's time for someone younger to come in to run it."

See a video about the Animal Kingdom Zoo in Burlington County at www.philly.com/zoo

Contact Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @JanHefler.

Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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