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Animal House

Charlotte Metro Zoo has been cited over a dozen times by the USDA. Critics wonder why it's still open.

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Less than an hour's drive from Charlotte in Rowan County, Charlotte Metro Zoo boasts -- along with our city's name -- a stable of over 100 animals, including baboons, chimpanzees, bears, wolves, camels, kangaroos, llamas, some 30 big cats, and nearly a dozen small, exotic cats. Steve Macaluso, the owner of the wildlife collection, has for years been criticized by animal rights activists. Groups like PETA have alleged Macaluso guilty of everything from overbreeding, taking baby animals from their mothers prematurely for commercial purposes, fasting the animals, keeping them in isolation or in inappropriate groups, and failing to provide proper shelter. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued numerous "non-compliance" citations to the zoo, including: failure to provide big cats with a veterinarian-approved diet, failure to maintain and clean enclosures, and failure to provide shelter from the elements. There have also been several well-publicized cases of animals escaping from the zoo, including a 1997 incident when a chimpanzee named Sydney broke free and roamed the area for a week, scaring nearby residents. As animal control officers attempted to return Sydney to his cage, the chimp broke free and bit a TV cameraman twice on the arm. This incident resulted in a USDA investigation and a $750 fine.

In 1998, two lions from the zoo, which were being used as entertainment at Renaissance festivals, mauled a man as he was cleaning their cage. The victim was flown by helicopter to a trauma center where he was treated for wounds to his head, leg, and face.

In October 2000, Animal Control officials had to assist Macaluso in a search for a leopard cub and a tiger cub after Macaluso lost control of his vehicle and crashed while returning from a photo shoot with the animals.

Despite these infractions, escapes, injuries and incidents, the zoo continues to operate. Macaluso insists he's been unfairly persecuted and falsely portrayed, and that his zoo is a safe and dignified habitat for animals that provides entertainment and education to the public. An estimated 15,000 people visited his zoo last year.

Smaller "roadside zoos" like Charlotte Metro Zoo are increasingly finding themselves the target of animal welfare advocates, who say these smaller outfits don't have the money or resources to adequately care for the animals, especially when compared to attractions like the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro. The Asheboro zoo is one of five operations in the state accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), which has its own set of guidelines and regulations.

"Generally speaking, the AZA is against the operation of these smaller roadside zoos because they cannot provide the adequate care, nutrition or facilities for these animals," says Rod Hackney, PR director of the NC Zoological Park. "Plus, one of the most important roles of the modern zoo is to educate the people who come and see the animals. This is another area where the smaller roadside operations do not have the resources to do that."

"I think it's like a sideshow at the old fairs," says Debra Sikes, of Charlotte Animal Control. "It's fine if you're an animal lover and know how to take care of them and handle them. But I just don't know about these kinds of places. Somebody's got to be responsible for those animals."

Toothless Inspectors
Although the facility is called the Charlotte Metro Zoo, it's not located in the Charlotte metro area, but rather north of the city in Rowan County; moreover, both Charlotte and Mecklenburg County ordinances forbid any person to keep or maintain wild or exotic animals.

Macaluso moved from Matthews and opened Charlotte Metro Zoo in 1996. "I just always loved animals," he says. "I've had animals all my life. When I moved from Matthews I had two tigers, three lions, two leopards and some monkeys. They were my private pets, and I just decided to open up a zoo."

Prior to that, however, he had a few run-ins with neighbors and wildlife personnel. The Dallas Morning News reported on January 8, 1995 that Macaluso's neighbors in Hemby Bridge, NC circulated petitions and threatened legal action because they feared for their children's safety should animals escape from chain-link cages behind his house. According to the Greensboro News & Record, on April 4, 1995, officials with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission removed a cougar and a bobcat from Macaluso's backyard, as keeping the animals violated state wildlife regulations.

The Charlotte Metro Zoo operates legally as an exotic animal exhibitor, licensed by the USDA. It is, in essence, a privately owned collection of exotic "pets," the care of which is outlined in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), and administered by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or, in this case, exhibited to the public. Those who operate these facilities must provide their animals with adequate care and treatment, including proper housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. To ensure that all licensed and registered facilities continue to comply with the Act, APHIS inspectors make unannounced inspections at least once annually.

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