A bill that would weaken regulations on exotic animals at roadside zoos in the state has passed the Wisconsin Senate.
Senate Bill 347 exempts a facility that holds a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exhibitor license from state license requirements relating to captive wild animals.
The bill eliminates the regulatory authority of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection over roadside zoos.
At a May 26 public hearing, a DNR wildlife veterinarian testified that under current law, no person may possess, take, propagate, sell, purchase, transfer, exhibit, or rehabilitate live wild animals unless specifically authorized to do so by the DNR and with the appropriate approval.
SB 347 would eliminate the requirement for roadside zoos to obtain an import permit for exotic animals they bring into the state. The DNR’s regulatory authority over the caging specifications and transportation standards for wildlife at roadside zoos would also be eliminated. The bill would exempt roadside zoos from state record-keeping and reporting requirements.
Representatives of Wildwood Wildlife Park, Minocqua, and Timbavati Wildlife Park, Wisconsin Dells, voiced their support of the bill at the hearing.
A witness said that after introducing the bill to the committee, Senator Van Wanggaard walked over to Timbavati Wildlife Park owner Matt Schoebel and said, “We’ll get it this time.”
Representative Alex Dallman is co-sponsoring the bill with Wanggaard. Dallman said he has visited Timbavati Wildlife Park for a tour.
“I learned of the efforts that Matt and Alice Schoebel of Timbavati take each day to ensure that the animals under their care receive proper treatment and a suitable environment,” Dallman said. “One of the most memorable moments of the tour was learning about Matt and Alice's efforts to care for animals whom may be older or disabled, such as a white tiger who has begun to lose its eyesight.”
The white tiger Dallman referenced is likely one of the animals the facility bred themselves. White tigers should never be bred and the tiger’s declining eyesight is a possible symptom of genetic issues due to inbreeding.
Timbavati Wildlife Park, located in Wisconsin Dells, and Shamba Safari, located in Neshkoro, are both USDA licensed under the name Animal Entertainments.
Animal Entertainments was started by the late Mark Schoebel and his wife Alice. Mark had been an active participant in wildlife trafficking for more than 30 years.
Mark was found guilty of wildlife trafficking charges for selling bears to be killed, dismembered and shipped overseas.
Mark sold tigers to men who were convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act by butchering 17 tigers and a leopard for their skulls, hides, and other parts.
Mark illegally imported seven raccoons which authorities found to be suffering from a neurological disorder. One of the raccoons was found dead at the airport and the other six were euthanized by authorities to test for rabies after biting people in Missouri and Wisconsin.
Mark re-sold 1,400 prairie dogs to pet stores and medical research labs. Epidemiologists later found some of those prairie dogs to be infected with tularemia, a highly transmissible zoonotic disease that can cause severe illness and death in humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In 1999, approximately 15 sooty mangabey monkeys died of electrocution under Mark’s care at his Neshkoro roadside zoo.
The Schoebels are known for mass breeding animals for pay-to-play interactions. The animals are offloaded at exotic animal auctions at the end of each zoo season.
Exhibits in the trial of Joe Exotic, made famous in the Netflix show “Tiger King,” indicate that from 2014-2016, the Schoebels sold 12 tigers and 2 white lions to the troubled Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
Recent visitors to the Schoebel's Shamba Safari say that non-native black tailed prairie dogs are running loose and breeding at the facility.
A conservation warden for the DNR said the USDA is the only organization with regulatory authority at Shamba Safari.
“We at the DNR, good, bad or otherwise, have absolutely no say in the operation of that facility,” he said.
USDA enforcement at roadside zoos has plummeted in recent years. Wisconsin has some of the most lax exotic animal regulations in the United States and SB 347 seeks to weaken those regulations even more.
Numerous organizations and individuals spoke out against SB 347 at the May listening session.
Charles Wikenhauser, Director Emeritus of the Milwaukee County Zoo, submitted a letter opposing the roadside zoo bill.
“Removing this licensure and oversight would be detrimental to public safety as well as the welfare of captive wildlife in Wisconsin,” he said. “In closing, I, along with other Wisconsin AZA Accredited Zoos, strongly oppose the adoption of SB 347."
On June 9, the senate passed SB 347. It now goes to the state Assembly. If passed, it will be sent to Governor Tony Evers for signing.