On a misty Saturday morning outside of Burlington, a small tour group walks down a gravel pathway through the exotic animal enclosures at the Animal Park at the Conservator’s Center, a nonprofit zoo.
Between two lion enclosures, the tour guide yells a deafening guttural sound and the lions join in soon after. It’s called "oofing" and it's how lions check in with each other.
North Carolina is one of only four states in the country that has no state-wide laws on private ownership of exotic animals. Instead, individual counties are left to regulate lions, pythons, or whatever exotic animal someone may want to own.
And while some of those counties have placed restrictions on animal ownership, others have no laws at all.
"The opportunity is there for the ownership of pretty much anything," says Tara Harrison, an assistant professor and veterinarian with the NC State School of Veterinary Medicine.
Harrison says that she does not know of anyone in the state with a large cat as a pet, but she can't be certain. She often treats smaller exotic animals, like servals, a type of wild cat native to sub-Saharan Africa.
"And they get it because it's pretty, it looks cool," Harrison explains. "And they don't know how to take care of it. So we have seen some instances where these animals are fed an inappropriate diet, and then they have poor bone quality and or fractures. Or they're not vaccinated properly. So then they get sick, and they have to be put to sleep."
Harrison also works with private zoos – both for-profit and non-profit. She says it's difficult to know which is better for the welfare of animals.
In Caswell County, where the Conservator's Center is located, the exotic animal ordinance limits ownership only to those who can properly restrain their animal with an enclosure or leash and muzzle.
The Center opened to the public in 2007, after taking in a number of big cats from a shuttered zoo in Ohio three years earlier. They are a 501(c)(3) non-profit with a budget that comes primarily from donations and tour ticket sales. About 20 big cats live there, along with 20 other species of animals including servals, fennec foxes, lemurs, binturongs, bobcats and wolves.
“People need to understand why these animals are important,” says Mindy Stinner, the Conservator’s Center executive director and co-founder. “It's not just about 'I have a cool collection.' It's not just about the ego of an individual. It's not just about maintaining them for our pleasure. I feel like they need to serve a higher purpose.”
Visitors can only walk through the grounds and see the animals on the weekend, when staff and volunteers lead guided tours. Animals land at the Conservator’s Center after coming from other zoos as a donation or rescue, and sometimes they are donated by individual owners who can no longer take proper care of their animal.
“In each case, for all of those things, none of the animals were ever abandoned, or ever left hanging - these animals were not going to be put down,” says Stinner. “They were people looking for a placement, the right place for that animal to live out its life.”
The decision not to breed the big cats at the Conservator’s Center is largely financial. The park sits on ten developed acres of a 45-acre property. With such little space, breeding large cats would be impractical. But they do breed some of their smaller, underrepresented animals as part of a broader conservation effort.
A few hundred miles away, north of Charlotte in Iredell County, is Zootastic Park. They are one of the state’s largest, private, for-profit zoos. They operate on about 200 acres of land and have hundreds of animals.
At the entrance of the zoo is a massive barn with a “Zootastic Park” sign hanging over the doorway and billboards for local businesses on the walls. After going through a gift shop, visitors can walk around the park at will. Interspersed between the big cat enclosures are a carousel, picnic area and petting zoos.
Scottie Brown owns the place. He’s a general contractor by trade, but he’s owned zebra and elk for most of his life. Brown decided to open Zootastic because he wanted to expand his collection.
“I wanted a giraffe,” he says. “And to buy a giraffe for fifty-thousand bucks to sit in your backyard and look at it, you got to be rich and I wasn’t rich.”
Apart from ticket sales, Zootastic funds its business by breeding some of their animals. Sometimes they sell the newborns, other times they include the young in their animal encounter package. Guests can pay for more intimate, interactive encounters with animals like lemurs, kangaroos, or big-cat cubs.
The United States Department of Agriculture allows for public handling of cubs, but only for the few weeks when a cub is big enough to be away from its mother but small enough that it can’t seriously injure someone.
A license from the USDA is required to trade or exhibit exotic animals. Both Zootastic and the Conservators Center are subject to USDA regulation. In the exotic animal community, the USDA serves as a kind of entry-level accreditation to operate a zoo. It sets standards like the size of the enclosure, veterinary care, and basic animal welfare and public safety.
Stinner respects the USDA’s role in maintaining standards, but thinks the organization might be too big for its own good.
“The standards are solid, the concepts are solid, the implementation is where the challenge always occurs,” she says. “And it's a challenge on both sides, it's hard for us sometimes to know what they're looking for. It's hard sometimes for them to be consistent and how they enforce it.”
According to USDA records, the Animal Park at the Conservator’s Center, which until recently was known only as the Conservator’s Center, has not had any recent citations.
Brown, with Zootastic, says USDA inspectors are tough, but fair. USDA records show since 2014 they’ve had a few citations ranging from torn feed bags to a bloody tiger tail. All were corrected by the follow-up inspections.
In line with recent moves relaxing regulation on ownership of exotic animals, the Trump administration is considering having USDA inspections occur only every three years instead of annually. Brown says that is a threat to his business and to other private zoos.
“We need to do it every year,” he says. “It's to protect us all.”
Both owners believe that the state of North Carolina should further regulate ownership of exotic animals.
Earlier this year, two state representatives from Iredell County introduced a bill to limit exotic animal ownership to USDA licensed facilities, but it stalled in the Senate.
Versions of a regulatory bill are offered up every few years, sometimes after a tragedy. That’s what happened in 2018, when a lion killed an intern at the Conservator’s Center.
None of the bills ever received a vote in the General Assembly.