Triangle Metro Zoo closes

High cost of operating the Wake Forest facility led to decision to close

Staff WriterFebruary 16, 2006 

WAKE FOREST -- Jason Retama, age 4, pressed his face up to the closed gate at the Triangle Metro Zoo, squealing and pointing when he saw a small group of furry, black-and-white yaks run nearby.

Jason had come with his family from Rolesville to get his first look at such exotic creatures as zebras, bears, camels and a tiger. But the gate would remain locked.

The Triangle Metro Zoo, its owner announced this week, is closed.

Most of the animals have gone to private zoos and a couple of independent collectors.

"It's just more than I feel any one person can handle," owner Larry Seibel said as he walked through the park Wednesday.

The zoo, a popular attraction that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors in the past eight years, is one of at least two private zoos in North Carolina that has shut down in recent months. The Soco Gardens Zoo in Maggie Valley closed in October after more than 50 years in operation. Owners said the economy and low attendance forced the decision, according to the local newspaper, The Mountaineer.

These zoos were once common roadside attractions, popular to tourists but troubling to some who worried about the animals' care.

Lorraine Smith, curator of mammals at the N.C. Zoo, said the zoo often gets calls with concerns about private zoos. Smith said it's not a lucrative business.

"The cost of care -- the food and the housing for exotic animals -- is very high, and they are very labor intensive to care for," she said. "It's a difficult and challenging thing to do. So I can understand why another zoo is closing."

Money, as well as personal issues and the difficulty of finding knowledgeable employees, factored into Seibel's decision.

Seibel said he never fully recovered from a fire that ripped through a barn, which included a gift shop, restaurant and restrooms, shortly after he opened in 1998. He said there was little to no insurance for the building and for some animals that died in the fire.

And the loss of the restrooms meant he could not advertise the attraction on Capital Boulevard. The state Department of Transportation wouldn't approve a permanent sign along the highway until the zoo improved its facilities. Seibel said there never was enough money to do it.

"It was close to breaking even," he said.

He said he lost more money in 2001 after spending between $40,000 and $50,000 to organize a fall festival around Halloween. In previous years, the zoo was packed for the event. Visitors came for candy, music and other activities. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, attendance was low.

"9/11 killed us," he said, surmising that people became afraid to congregate.

The cost to buy feed and hay was as high as $6,000 a week, though local businesses, including the Angus Barn, donated food. An auction to raise money for the zoo drew few buyers.

A tattered sign asking visitors to help build a more appropriate home for Rajah, a Bengal tiger that, Seibel said, was rescued from a private owner in Virginia, got little response. The tiger lives in a cage built for monkeys. It was one of several exhibits Seibel said he wanted to improve to give the animals a more natural habitat.

"A lot of people wanted to donate their time, but it wasn't the time we needed," Seibel said. "It was the money."

Last November, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the zoo for having inadequate fencing next to an area where new homes have popped up. Seibel said he knew the fencing needed to go up.

"It's just one more thing," he said. "It was not the determining factor. We would have been glad to do that if we had to stay. It was an expense. Every time you tried to get a little money ahead something else would happen."

Seibel said he grew up on a farm in the Midwest and has bred exotic animals for more than 20 years. He bought the land, which straddles the Wake and Franklin county lines, in the mid-1980s. He bred exotic animals to sell. He said he's best known for the rare white camels he breeds.

"We couldn't keep people out of here," he said. "It was a breeding facility, and we couldn't keep people away."

He eventually decided to open his farm to the public.

Seibel said the zoo became a popular place for school field trips, drawing 1,000 to 1,500 children a day to the park. He was booked with school trips this spring.

He planned to close last year, he said, but the zoo's followers persuaded him to stay open. He didn't make his announcement until this week, after most of the animals had been shipped away, though a few of the favorites remain.

Agnes and Sparky, Himalayan bears, waited for their new owners to pick them up. They were placed with the owners of the Lazy 5 Ranch near Charlotte, who also own a zoo in Ohio. Seibel said he's still looking for an appropriate place for Rajah. He already has declined a few offers.

"I can't just give him to anybody," he said.

He's not sure what will happen next. He said he had received calls from developers interested in buying his 40 acres. New homes are going up all around him. Seibel said he'd like to see the land preserved as a sanctuary for rescued animals.

He'll probably move, he said, and continue his breeding business elsewhere.

"I had a lot of dreams," Seibel said. "I had three phases planned, and I only accomplished one phase -- and it could have been better."

(News researcher Sarah Radick contributed to this report.)

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall can be reached at 829-8983 or slindenf@newsobserver.com.

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