Private zoo offers a refuge for discarded animals

vbridges@newsobserver.comJuly 7, 2014 

  • Aloha Safari Zoo

    Where: 159 Mini Lane, Cameron

    Cost: $8 per person, $3 for safari rides

    Online: alohasafarizoo.org

— Valentine is the daughter of Ugly Betty, a crippled miniature cow who died on Valentine’s Day four years ago after having a double cesarean. Stretch is a giraffe who lived in a garage in Ohio and was used for promotional videos and photography before he got too big. And Thelma and Louise were two pregnant zebras that kept jumping their owner’s fence.

Those are just some of the stories behind roughly 350 exotic and other animals that Lee Crutchfield, 44, has taken in on his miniature horse farm turned private Aloha Safari Zoo.

Over the past 18 years, the 65-acre farm in Harnett County has evolved into a home for discarded, neglected and donated animals, from a monkey who was found tied up in the woods about a mile from his jailed owner’s trailer to camels once used by churches for Nativity scenes. There’s Big Lots, a ferret who was found in his namesake store in the town of Spring Lake, and other former pets from alligators to zebras.

To help cover the animals’ costs, Crutchfield opened his zoo to the public on weekends in February 2010. It’s now open Tuesday through Sunday.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a handful of staff and volunteers fed the animals and groomed the grounds, which includes a miniature horse farm; the zoo and its monkeys, bear, tigers and snake cages; and pastures with dozens of animals, including donkeys, llamas, an emu, an ostrich an African eland, a buffalo, and a pig that fell off of a slaughter truck.

About 60 peacocks (two of which had terrorized a Wake County golf course) wander free on the property, along with about 20 rabbits.

To get to the snake and iguana cages, visitors walk through the small gift shop with a ceiling lined with horse trophies and plaques representing the success of the property’s money-making endeavor. The zoo’s $8 entrance fee and the gift shop sales cover 50 percent of the zoo’s expenses, Crutchfield said. The sale, training, breeding and showing of the about 75 miniature horses on the property covers the rest.

He asked for a monkey

Last week, families and groups flowed onto the property clamoring to pet the goats, the giraffe, a 3-week-old Bengal tiger and a 12-week-old rhesus macaque monkey wearing a dress and a diaper.

The zoo “gives these animals a purpose,” said Tiffany Tremont, 47, the zoo and horse farm’s general manager.

Visitors said they came to the zoo after hearing about it from someone else or on social media.

“I saw a picture on Facebook of my friend holding a tiger,” said Cassie Marcantonio, 20, of Hillsborough, who came to the zoo with a group of about 10 kids that she and a friend babysit.

“They really enjoyed being really close up to the animals,” she said.

The story behind the zoo starts with the land. At 19, Lee Crutchfield bought most of the property from his high school principal, who financed the transaction.

“That is what started it,” Crutchfield said.

After graduating from high school in 1988, Crutchfield enrolled at a hairstyling academy and commuted to Raleigh.

He soon started making good money. He opened Cut Loose on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh in the 1990s, and later a location in Sanford. He sold both in 1996.

Meanwhile, Crutchfield had built a miniature horse operation. After winning a world championship for a wealthy client in the mid 1990s, Crutchfield was given one wish. He asked for a monkey.

Crutchfield spent two weeks in Las Vegas working with trainers before he came home with a capuchin monkey he named Vegas.

“I very quickly realized just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” he said.

Vegas wanted to climb on him, guests and walls. He was bottle-raised but still a wild animal. Crutchfield searched for a sanctuary, but was appalled by the conditions he found animals living in, he said.

That’s when he decided to turn his farm into a home for discarded animals, he said. He took in animals from broke and burned down zoos, bought exotic animals before they reached U.S. hunting ranches and took in wolves, a bear and tigers once used for photography opportunities, starved so they would appear younger and neglected after they grew out of their usefulness.

“We are the rest home for animals,” Crutchfield said.

Then came a spider monkey that Crutchfield and Tremont named Hope. Hope’s owner died and her son inherited the monkey, which he tried to sell on Craigslist. When Crutchfield bought her, Hope’s arm was permanently twisted with fingers lost during a dog attack, he said.

Hope marked a turning point between a casual sanctuary and a full-fledged zoo.

“These animals deserve to have a voice,” he said.

Covering expenses

As the animals increased, so did Crutchfield’s expenses. He sold his 2006 Corvette, his Myrtle Beach home, rental property and jewelry to help cover costs.

By 2010, Crutchfield had about 250 animals. After years of shooing people off his property, which includes three homes for him, his parents and Tremont, Crutchfield decided to open it to the public. Last month, more than 5,000 people visited.

Crutchfield has about five employees, but also relies on volunteers, including his parents and military members and their families. Crutchfield’s father, Shelton, drives the tractor for the safari tour, a 20-minute ride around pastures filled with mostly hoofed animals.

The zoo is inspected at least annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses and regulates the exhibition and care of the animals. Over the past three years, the zoo has been visited by USDA officials five times and cited twice for noncompliance. In 2011, it was cited for a lack of paperwork for incoming animals and in 2013 for a lack of shade for the camels.

Both issues were corrected, according to USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. Tremont said that the camels had been moved temporarily into a round pen away from other animals.

For Crutchfield, each day’s admission costs cover a different expense, from the three tons of grain consumed every two-and-a-half weeks to the 30 pounds of chicken each of the fours tigers eats daily.

Then along comes a rainy weekend. The loss of revenue stresses Crutchfield out, he said, but he has faith that help will come along in some form or fashion.

“When I get to that point, and I feel like I can’t make it another day, I cry and I have a major breakdown,” he said. “Then I go out and hug the giraffe, and something good happens the next day.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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