Living conditions at Tennessee drive-through safari raise red flags

By: and - August 3, 2020 5:30 am
Tennessee Animal Safari. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

Tennessee Animal Safari. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

On any given day at the Tennessee Safari Park in Alamo, visitors in vehicles line the gravel driveway for several hundred yards, snaking past the entrance, down the road, and doubling back again to finally enter the park.

Once inside the park visitors can drive through 5.5 miles of safari trail and feed a variety of exotic animals from their vehicles, visit the gift shop, ride a camel, participate in the petting zoo or grab a snack. At each turn, however, are red flags that animal rights experts and activists agree should at least raise questions about the park and its practices.

The Conley family has owned their property and home in West Tennessee since 1858, and the park opened for business in 2007. It is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit that promotes conservation and animal welfare. Multiple animal experts told Tennessee Lookout a lack of AZA accreditation was problematic, including Phil Colclough, director of animal care at Zoo Knoxville. 

Tennessee Safari Park logo
Tennessee Safari Park logo

“The benchmark for any zoological organization is accreditation through AZA,” Colclough said. “If they don’t meet that standard—that’s not to say there aren’t good zoos outside that—but that’s the benchmark I’ve worked with my whole career.”

Colclough said it was unlikely other drive-through parks where visitors feed animals are AZA accredited. While the AZA could not be reached for comment, a similar drive-through park in Huntsville, AL, is also not AZA accredited. Other Tenneseee locations approved by the AZA are the Nashville Zoo, Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo and Zoo Knoxville.

The Tennessee Safari Park had serious compliance issues listed on USDA inspection reports, including six in 2016. That report listed a ferret in need of grooming services, expired medicine in the drug cabinet, unsafe and uncomfortable living conditions for rabbits, a loose wallaby, a lack of fresh, clean water and bug infestations in some animals’ living areas.

In 2017, a USDA report stated the issues had been resolved and a new veterinarian hired for the park, but a recent trip to the zoo suggested many of these problems are still occurring. On July 18, the Lookout photographed multiple empty water and feed troughs throughout the park as well as a muddy drainage ditch emptying into the pasture near animals. The temperature was above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and animals were gathered in groups under small metal sheds for shade or under sparse tree coverage.

Bison were observed panting heavily and almost all the animals were in a large, pastured area with seemingly little enrichment. The park does have some tree trunks, dirt and rock piles and at least one bamboo grove which seemed to provide enrichment and terrain variety. In the open drive-through area, the Lookout observed three employees. Dozens of vehicles with feed buckets purchased at the gate fed animals unsupervised and unattended.

Additionally, a deer was photographed licking what appeared to be an open wound and tt least one barbed wire fence was broken and one employee was observed tossing an empty Gatorade bottle from his ATV inside the pasture near multiple species. 

Debbie Metzler, Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA, reviewed footage and photographs taken at the park with her team. Metzler and her team said the drainage pipe emptying into the animal enclosure was both a trip hazard and seemed too dirty for drinking. While other plastic bins of water were located throughout the park, the Lookout could not observe how much water was inside. 

The PETA team said it was concerning that three empty water troughs were photographed in the park, including in a kookaburra enclosure and the larger pasture area containing bison, ostriches, deer and other animals.

“Animals should have access to water at all times, especially during the summer months,” Metzler said.

The USDA has been less aggressive and reliable in recent years due to administration changes, and  it’s not uncommon for issues to go unreported, say officials with PETA, who add the USDA’s website was “blacked out”  in 2017 and that multiple organizations filed lawsuits to get inspection reports back online.

Metzler also said the USDA has been less aggressive and reliable in recent years due to administration changes, and that it was not uncommon for issues to go unreported. Metlzer said in 2017, the USDA’s website was “blacked out” and that multiple organizations filed lawsuits to get inspection reports back online. Since then, Metzler said the search function hasn’t been as robust, and other changes in reporting make violations seem less serious than they are.

“They’ve adapted a new tactic they call ‘Teachable Moments.’ Previous violations aren’t allowed to be a teachable moment,” Metzler said. “How is no water a teachable moment? They should not have to be taught, they should be things the exhibitor is aware of. If they’re not providing that they need to be held accountable.”

Metzler also said unsupervised feeding can be harmful. At the Safari Park, visitors feed  bison, ostriches, giraffes, zebras and deer the same pellet food despite individual dietary needs. While the park’s website said animals receive more nutritional food before and after the park closes, Metzler said there’s no way to know what, and how much, the animals consume during visitor feedings.

“If those feedings aren’t closely monitored, how do they know how much the animals are getting? What’s to prevent people from giving them something harmful?” Metzler said.

Metzler said the kind of care and attention each animal needs is hard to give in a park this size. A previous USDA report listed 830 regulated animals, which does not include unregulated species like ponies or ostriches. Metzler said even that number makes it easier to miss an open wound and harder to monitor feeding practices, but park owner Jon Conley said in an email statement there are more than 2,000 animals at the park.

Multiple individuals have recorded and posted videos of animals that bite, possibly because the interactions aren’t closely monitored. On July 6, a young man was gored by a bison, requiring stitches and causing what may be permanent disfigurement. The young man’s family posted about the attack on Facebook, which happened during a feeding, and the plastic surgery required afterwards. The family was not available for comment, but Conley confirmed the incident in an email statement to Tennessee Lookout.

If you have to put up a sign warning somebody of an activity that you're sanctioning, maybe the activity shouldn't be happening.

– Phil Colclaugh, Knoxville Zoo

Other visitors have posted negative reviews about animal living conditions and ostrich bites. On the park’s website, an entire FAQ question is dedicated to debunking the idea that ostriches bite, despite video evidence. Metlzer also said ostriches are notoriously aggressive animals. 

Jon Conley, who helped open the park in 2007, responded to the Lookout’s inquiries about living conditions and safety at the park in an email statement. Beginning with the question about a wounded animal, Conley inferred the Lookout was asking about an injured bison, and described a 16-year old female that rubs sores or open wounds onto herself by scratching. While the Lookout was in fact referring to an injured deer, Conley said the female bison and her calf had been moved from exhibition out of public view. Conley also said there were no empty water troughs on the park.

A deer licks an open wound. (Photo: Matt Bastin)
A deer licks an open wound. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

“We have no empty water troughs anywhere in the park. If you have a photo of an empty or low water trough, that was being used to medicate a particular animal,” Conley said.

Conley said the drainage pipe observed is used to wash cups at a small sink, and that it does not extend into an animal enclosure, despite photo evidence of it emptying into the pasture.

Conley said that empty feed troughs were a sign park employees were doing their jobs, as they do not want to overfeed animals or waste food. Conley said these troughs are also used to medicate animals. He said he is an expert in his field and would provide more enrichment for animals if he thought they required it. 

When asked about the sale of exotic species, Conley said the information is private and declined to share how much profit the park makes on animal sales. The park’s website states it provides exotic species for conservation efforts “all over the world,” and Conley said a “local AZA zoo” has acquired animals from the park. Because some of the species at the park are not regulated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, no records of animal transfers or sales were available for reference. 

Due to the terrorist-like behavior by many of these radical animal rights groups we do not share this information and we purposefully keep most of our transactions private,” Conley said. “[We’ve] been requested to supply breeding groups of African animals for [a] new exhibit, which we respectfully declined.”

Conley said profitability is important and intentionally chose not to join the “country club” AZA. Conley said he is instead a member of the Zoological Association of America. The president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States wrote that the ZAA worked to weaken the Endangered Species Act and advocates for private ownership of exotic, dangerous species. The post stated that ZAA accredits facilities that don’t meet the AZA’s strict standards. 

While the Lookout was not able to obtain tax documents showing exact income, Conley said the park hosts thousands of visitors per day. Adult admission to the park is $16. If 2,500 adult visitors went through the park it would generate $40,000 in revenue in a day.

“Unlike city zoos with their hands out for governmental taxation, grants and donations  we knew long term these practices are not sustainable and begging people and businesses for donations or loans are not the right answers,” Conley said.

On the bison that attacked the young man on site, Conley said it was unfortunate but maintained the family’s story “doesn’t add up,” and said the vehicle was too small for a bison to fit its head inside the window.

“The only logical conclusion is the man in question stuck [his] body outside the window, [fed] and or petted the bison,” Conley said. “We have a video that will clearly show everyone and the jury that the park nor the animal was at fault. Once our attorneys give us the go ahead we will be happy to release the video on social media. This will clear this misconception and slander over our animals and our park.”

The park has multiple signs in various areas warning visitors that animals bite and that bison can cause damage to vehicles. The park’s site also states no outside animals are allowed on the premises—including service animals—as this may agitate an attack or end in pets being harmed. Metzler said if animals are aggressive, it’s best not to allow the public near.

“I would not recommend it,” Metzler said. “Obviously animal welfare is our top priority, but hand in hand with that is public safety. The animal suffers because they’re blamed for doing what’s natural to them.”

Colclough agreed and said the activity should be limited if animals are aggressive.

“If you have to put a sign up warning somebody of an activity that you’re sanctioning, maybe the activity shouldn’t be happening,” Colclough said.

Conley said in his email statement he would post the transcript on social media to prevent the Lookout from piecing his words together to fit “an agenda.” However, the Lookout was able to find some areas Colclough said the park was not out of line, including camel rides. He said camels are domesticated animals and that riding them isn’t inherently bad provided their living conditions are satisfactory.”

Not every practice at the park is inherently bad or abusive, but living conditions and other red flags raised concerns customers should be aware of before visiting. As so many park signs read, visitors agree to pay, explore and feed at their own risk.

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Lonnie Lee Hood
Lonnie Lee Hood

Lonnie Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.

Matt Bastin
Matt Bastin

Matt Bastin is a freelance journalist from Nashville. His areas of research are human rights, protest coverage, and extremism with a particular emphasis on white nationalism