SPEARFISH — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is removing 11 animals from the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Spearfish after the facility’s director reportedly surrendered them.
Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist for the USDA, based in Maryland, told the Black Hills Pioneer that Mike Welchynski, director of the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, voluntarily surrendered the animals, consisting of four big cats, six bears, and one wolf hybrid. She did not have information on the specific species or why they were being surrendered.
When the USDA was asked if any animals had been euthanized, Espinosa said the USDA does not oversee the euthanization of animals, that decision is up to the owner of the facility or animals.
After repeated attempts by the Pioneer, Welchynski could not be reached for comment.
Espinosa said that USDA officials have been at the Spearfish facility since Sept. 28 for a routine inspection.
Currently, the USDA role is to ensure the safe transportation and of the animals to a new undisclosed facility.
She did not immediately identify the facility or facilities to which the animals would be transported. According to the USDA, the last routine inspection was conducted on May 18, 2016 and no non-compliant items were identified. Routine inspections on Aug. 18, 2015, and Oct. 7, 2014, also found no non-compliant items. An April 8, 2014 inspection found several minor issues.
“We do inspection reports on all licensees,” Espinosa said. “On average we inspect them about once a year, but we do inspect them more as needed,” or if the public reports any concerns.
The latest report indicated that there are 152 animals at the sanctuary that are regulated by the USDA; however, the Animal Welfare Act, which the USDA regulates, does not cover other animals such as birds, reptiles, and snakes.
According to the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary’s website, it is home to more than 320 animals including bears, lions, tigers, dogs, cats, parrots and farm animals.
“Since it was established in 1999, the Sanctuary has grown to become one of the most diverse animal rescues in the nation. Operating on professionally trained volunteer help, donations, and admission fees, the Sanctuary is a non-breeding animal charity dedicated to providing a peaceful lifelong home for rescued, surrendered, retired, and orphaned animals from private owners, breeding facilities, and the entertainment industry. Licensure by the South Dakota Animal Industry Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ensure high standards of veterinary care, animal containment, and facility security,” according to its website.
The USDA works under the guidelines of The Animal Welfare Act, which has been in place since 1966. The act requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public.
The USDA licenses and regulates more than 10,000 facilities and/or people and provides oversight to facilities ranging from zoos, commercial breeders, people who have five or more breeding females, people who sell animals sight-unseen, such as internet sales, those who conduct biomedical research, and circuses. The regulations cover all warm-blooded mammals.
The USDA does not regulate private ownership of domestic or exotic animals that are kept strictly as pets; however; exotic animals may be regulated by the state, as is the case in South Dakota.
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