The U.S. Department of Agriculture has shut down the unlicensed Tennessee roadside zoo Hands On Exotics after receiving a tip from Roadside Zoo News.
Hands On Exotics is located in Whitwell, Tennessee. The facility is owned by Sarah Thompson.
The Hands On Exotics Facebook page indicates they bring exotic animals to birthday parties, office events, festivals and more. They also began charging an admittance fee of $150 for four people to visit their facility to hold and play with exotic animals. Social media posts indicate the facility has porcupines, foxes, a coatimundi, rabbits, goats, cattle, a coyote, a wallaby, African servals, muntjac deer and others.
“Here we love to show all of our exotics and let you get up close to each one!” Hands On Exotics posted on social media. “We are always adding and will always have a new baby to touch or bottle feed!”
The Hands On Exotics website lists the facility as a nonprofit animal rescue.
However, Thompson's social media comments indicate she was actively purchasing animals from well known exotic animal dealers. Hands On Exotics is not recognized as a nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service or the Tennessee Department of State.
Social media posts indicate Hands On Exotics was keeping a coyote in a small dog kennel with a domestic dog. The public was allowed to interact with the coyote, an activity prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act.
Hands On Exotics was operating their roadside zoo without the federally required USDA Class C exhibitor’s license. Roadside Zoo News sent a tip to the USDA about Hands On Exotics including information about an April 10 Easter event the facility was hosting which included “meeting the new exotic animals.”
USDA Veterinary Medical Officer Susanne Brunkhorst attended the April 10 Easter event and searched Hands On Exotics.
“The facility is exhibiting … to the public today without a valid USDA license,” Brunkhorst wrote in the inspection report.
Brunkhorst cited Hands On Exotics with a non-critical violation for operating their roadside zoo without a license.
“The facility needs to obtain a USDA license or discontinue regulated activities,” Brunkhorst wrote. “No regulated activities can be conducted until a USDA license is obtained.”
On April 19, Hands On Exotics posted on social media that they were closing to build new enclosures.
On May 3, Hands On Exotics posted on social media that until further notice they will be closed to the public.
“USDA has new guidelines we are having to meet so we can open back up as [Hands On Exotics],” they wrote. “...we are not allowed to ‘exhibit’ our babies.”
Shortly after posting that the USDA had shut them down, Hands On Exotics deactivated their TikTok and Facebook accounts.
It is unclear whether Hands On Exotics will obtain a USDA license and reopen their roadside zoo to the public again. The USDA noted in their inspection report that Hands On Exotics must have a valid license to exhibit animals to the public to protect the health and well-being of animals.