Rustic Retreat Deer Park must stop letting the public interact with wolfdogs or face fines of $500 per day, a Sheboygan County judge ruled today.
Rustic Retreat Deer Park is a roadside zoo in the Town of Russell, near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The facility is owned by Tom Mueller, who began operating his roadside zoo illegally in 2020, without the state or federally required permits.
The facility quickly grew to include wolfdog hybrids, deer, goats, sheep, mute swans and bison. Mueller offers playtime tours with the wolfdogs and other animals, where the public can enter the animals’ enclosure and freely interact with them.
In a social media post, Mueller claimed that more than 15,000 people have played with his wolfdogs in the past two and a half years.
Read more about Rustic Retreat Deer Park:
Dangerous and illegal wolf encounters offered at Rustic Retreat Deer Park
DNR tickets Rustic Retreat Deer Park for failing to obtain a license for wolfdogs
Rustic Retreat Deer Park pays citation; still non-compliant with local, state and federal law
DNR notifies Rustic Retreat Deer Park that wolfdog encounters must cease
Rustic Retreat Deer Park cited with six animal welfare violations
Roadside Zoo News reported Mueller’s illegal roadside zoo to both the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In October 2021, the DNR cited Mueller for failing to obtain a license for his wolfdogs and fined him $539. Mueller later obtained a DNR license.
In December 2021, Mueller obtained a USDA license to exhibit animals to the public. He was subsequently cited with six violations of the Animal Welfare Act after he posted a video on social media in April 2022 showing his wolfdogs dragging his domestic dog around an enclosure by a leash.
In January 2022, the DNR notified Mueller that the public wolfdog interactions he offers must cease because they violate Wisconsin law. Mueller continued letting the public interact with the wolfdogs.
Rustic Retreat Deer Park is considered an agritourism business. In order to operate an agritourism business at that location, Mueller was required to obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) from the town.
The town twice denied Mueller’s CUP, stating that a requirement for the permit to be granted is for Mueller to be in compliance with the law, meaning the public wolfdog encounters must cease.
After Mueller’s repeated refusal to comply with the permit requirements, the town filed a lawsuit against him in April. A court trial was held today.
The judge heard testimony from the town chair who asked the court to enter a permanent injunction prohibiting public interaction sessions with wolfdogs at Rustic Retreat Deer Park and ordering Mueller to be fined $500 per day for every day he continued operating without a CUP, from August 3, 2021 to November 28, 2022.
DNR Administrative Warden Pete Dunn testified that he notified Mueller in January that the public wolfdog encounters must cease. Dunn confirmed that wolfdogs are classified as harmful wildlife, with regulations that prohibit exhibitors from allowing the public to interact with them.
Mueller also testified. When questioned by his attorney, Joseph Voelkner, Mueller perjured himself by falsely claiming his wolfdogs are always leashed while being exhibited to the public.
“And do you always utilize, in the context of those interactive sessions if you will, that is contact with the public, do you always have a leash or other control of the animals during those time frames?” Voelkner questioned.
“Yes,” Mueller responded.
“Why do you do that, what’s the reason?” Voelkner asked.
“The biggest reason I keep them leashed is they’re extremely valuable,” Mueller said. “If one of them got run over on the road, it would be a devastating loss. But they are always leashed, they are never let loose.”
During cross examination from the town’s attorney, Mueller admitted that he allows the public to enter the enclosure and freely interact with the wolfdogs without a leash.
“This involves our tour group coming inside and playing with the wolfdogs inside the enclosure,” he said.
Mueller testified that animal activists have created discourse at his facility.
“We have animal rights activists, obviously we have some of them here today,” he said. “Yes, obviously, animal rights are opposed to any animal being in an enclosure, so you’ll never please these people. So yes, we have a lot of haters.”
Judge Rebecca Persick told Mueller that he can’t allow the public to have contact with the wolfdogs.
“Whether they’re a dog, or whether they’re a wolf, or whether they’re a wolfdog, dogs can inflict incredible injury on people as well,” she said.
Mueller raised his hand and directly addressed the judge.
“If it’s kept in the house as a pet, anybody can come to my house, sit on the couch and interact with my pets,” he said. “How can it be a pet if it’s in the house, but if I keep it outside all of a sudden it turned into a harmful, dangerous animal?”
Persick told Mueller that dangerous animals share occupancy with humans all the time.
“Animals are unpredictable and a wolfdog is a huge animal that, if it acts in a way that isn't predictable, could cause severe injury to somebody,” she said. “Allowing a neighbor or a friend to come over knowing that you have a wolfdog, and they're taking that risk on their own and the dog is in your house, that is something different than charging members of the public, who you don’t know and the wolfdogs don’t know, to have unlimited interactions with them,” she said.
Persick entered an injunction prohibiting Mueller from allowing interactive sessions between the wolfdogs and the public.
"Mr. Mueller has been told repeatedly by the DNR that he cannot have interactive sessions between the public and the wolfdogs and he has continued to do that and that is what is holding up the town giving him a permit so I am going to enter an injunction prohibiting him from having any interactive sessions with the public and the wolfdogs," she said.
She declined to levy a fine against Mueller for each day he operated Rustic Retreat Deer Park without the required permit over the past year.
“I will say that if you don’t immediately cease, I will allow the town, effective today, to start charging $500 a day for noncompliance with the order going forward,” she said.
After the hearing, Mueller posted on social media that wolfdog interactions at Rustic Retreat Deer Park are currently stopped and the roadside zoo has temporarily shut down.