Union Ridge Wildlife Center (UWRC) owner Cy Vierstra has canceled his license to operate his roadside zoo as he awaits sentencing for felony theft charges and pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who is urging officials to shut down the illegal operation.
Vierstra, of Wilkesville, Ohio, was featured in the 2021 documentary The Conservation Game, along with Tim Harrison of Outreach for Animals. Harrison exposed wildlife trafficking in The Conservation Game. About a month after the documentary was released, Harrison and Vierstra themselves participated in wildlife trafficking.
In Oct. 2021, Vierstra was arrested and charged with a dozen felonies for using his position as the Vinton Township Fiscal Officer to steal more than $287,000 in public funds between 2016 and 2020. The money was used for personal expenses, including costs associated with his roadside zoo, according to the Ohio Auditor.
In July 2021, while on bond for the theft charges, Vierstra took possession of a chimpanzee named Tonka, whose owner, Tonia Haddix, faked his death and smuggled him across state lines to prevent PETA from confiscating the chimp. PETA was awarded the chimp in a lawsuit and planned to place him at an accredited sanctuary.
Sources say that Harrison was at Vierstra’s property when Haddix showed up with the endangered chimp in a U-Haul. The transaction was reportedly filmed for an upcoming documentary being produced by Eric Goode, who also produced the Netflix series Tiger King.
In February 2022, Vierstra sent the chimp back to Haddix. The endangered chimp was twice trafficked across multiple state lines without the legally required health certificates and import permits, according to PETA.
In June 2022, PETA obtained a recording of Haddix admitting to a documentary producer that Tonka was still alive. PETA obtained an emergency order to confiscate the chimp from Haddix.
U.S. Marshalls raided Haddix’s Festus, Missouri home, where they found the chimp living in a small cage in the basement.
When Vierstra learned Haddix’s home was being raided, he called Harrison for help. Harrison said he arranged a phone call between Vierstra and PETA representatives, which was recorded. PETA wrote that during the call Vierstra admitted to keeping the chimp for Haddix for seven months.
PETA placed Tonka at Save the Chimps, an accredited sanctuary in Florida, where he is reportedly thriving.
Documents indicate Vierstra later pleaded with PETA to transfer Tonka back to his roadside zoo. Harrison texted a photograph of Tonka at URWC to PETA and allegedly called Save the Chimps and attempted to have Tonka removed from the accredited sanctuary and placed back at Vierstra’s roadside zoo.
Harrison said that by illegally trafficking the chimp, Vierstra helped the animal. He said he will continue to support Vierstra and his illegal roadside zoo.
On Oct. 26, 2022, Vierstra pled guilty to five felonies and one misdemeanor for the theft charges. The day after Vierstra entered his plea, he transferred his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) license out of his name and completed a scheduled pre-licensing inspection of URWC under its own name.
Roadside zoos in the U.S. are required to maintain a license with the USDA. Inspectors approved a new license for URWC, noting that it would be sent to Vierstra within 30 days.
On Nov. 22, PETA submitted a letter to the USDA notifying them that Vierstra is disqualified from ever being relicensed under the Animal Welfare Act. PETA also wrote a letter asking the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to investigate Vierstra for violating the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animals Act and regulations governing the import of nondomestic animals.
The violations include:
Failing to notify ODA of his possession of Tonka.
Failing to obtain and submit the legally required import permit and health certificates for Tonka.
Violating the Act’s prohibition of using dangerous wild animals for profit by marketing his animals to attract visitors for overnight stays at his Airbnb.
Violating the Act by allowing the public to engage in direct contact with dangerous wild animals, noting Vierstra allows Airbnb guests to directly interact with spider monkeys.
PETA asked ODA to revoke Vierstra’s permit to keep dangerous wild animals in Ohio and to confiscate the animals and place them at reputable facilities.
Vierstra has since removed the URWC page from Facebook. The Airbnb listing for his roadside zoo remains active.
Vierstra will be sentenced for the theft charges on Feb. 6, 2023. He faces up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $55,000 and $340,000 in restitution.