Zoo owners ask judge to return animals

COLLINS  —  The owners of the Collins Zoo have asked a judge to return 11 animals seized for relocation on state wildlife officers in January.

The owners, Gus and Betty White, are asking the Covington County Circuit Court to review a justice court order that led to the Jan. 25 seizure of tigers, wolf hybrids, leopards, cougars and a Rhesus macaque by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

The Whites’ attorney, A. Regnal Blackledge, tells the Hattiesburg American that the state violated a regulation that calls for a “reasonable period of time” to correct deficiencies in facilities housing what are legally defined as “inherently dangerous animals” following an initial inspection.

He says the rule provides that after the period allotted for corrections, a follow-up inspection is in order.

Betty White said when MDWFP officials inspected her facility in October, she didn’t hear from them again until January, when a court order for seizure was already in place.

“Without any notice or opportunity to be heard and refute and/or rebut the allegations of (MDWFP), justice court granted an order for seizure …” the Whites’ petition filed in circuit court states.

“If you’re going to close them down based on the regulation, you’ve got to follow the regulation,” Blackledge said.

MDWFP spokesman Jim Walker says the agency has done what they were obligated to do and obtained a legal court order.

“As far as we’re concerned, this matter has been concluded,” he said. “If the Whites want to take further legal action, that’s their right.”

Walker said January’s seizures come after a long and winding road of legal action.

“They had a lot of chances to bring up their standards, and they were not up to standards for the proper care of those animals,” he said.

Betty White said the department is picking on her and her establishment, explaining that she’s been in and out of court for a quarter century.

Betty White said none of her animals have ever escaped or harmed anyone. She said her cages are built from heavy-gauge wire that exceeds USDA standards, and they installed a 10-foot perimeter fence in 2010 that also exceeds USDA standards.

The zoo still contains a 15-year-old caracal, which is a large, wild cat, and an exceptionally old kinkajou, a “honey bear” native to South America.

The Humane Society of the United States has said it’s helping coordinate the placement of the animals from the Collins Zoo.

The Humane Society says the state seized the animals after the Humane Society submitted legal complaints “documenting serious animal welfare issues as well as public safety concerns.”

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