Deer Forest owners, community react to USDA complaint


More problems for a controversial petting zoo in Southwest Michigan. A federal investigation into Deer Forest in Coloma is now an official complaint from the United States Department of Agriculture.

That complaint accuses Deer Forest Amusements of violating the Animal Welfare Act. It's an update to an investigation and special report WSBT's Kelli Stopczynski did on the animal park in May.

The husband and wife that run the park say they knew there was an investigation, and say they found out about the complaint last month.

They also say they had nothing to do with it and they are not responsible for any of the allegations in that complaint.

It dates back to May 2011, when the park was under different ownership.

Some of the complaints say the park failed "to maintain a program of adequate veterinary care," had improper disposal of dead animal and did not give the deer proper shelter.

The complaint lists the park's most recent violation as July 2013.

Even though Jon Stolarz and Amy Gadberry were working at the park then, they say they worked for a Chicago man - named Jon Modica.

Stolarz and Gadberry say they didn't take over the park until four months ago. Modica still owns the land, but Stolarz and Gadberry lease it.

That's when they changed the name to Deer Forest Exotic Animal Sanctuary and made the park a non-profit organization.

Stolarz admits, though, they're violating USDA requirements.

Right now, Deer Forest does not have a USDA license to exhibit certain animals --including donkeys, bobcats and deer. But those animals are out in the park.

Stolarz says it's technically a violation, but they haven't been shut down.

They did not want to go on camera today, but said a 17-year-old employee could talk about the complaint, ongoing protests and overall resistance against the park and the couple running it.

"I would prefer to do this and have my face out there rather than theirs because they've gone through enough," says Brittany Schroeder, a gift shop manager at the park. "They're just such good people because it's hard to watch them be harassed when they've got more things in their family going on. I would rather take it for them and try and take some of it off of them."

Sheila Lopresti lives in Coloma. She says the conditions at Deer Forest are unacceptable.

"I'm here as an animal advocate. I have visited Deer Forest myself and have seen the atrocious conditions of the inside, let alone the conditions of the animals. They're unacceptable," Lopresti says.

Stolarz and Gaberry continue to meet resistance on Facebook and in the community after news broke about the USDA complaint. Two cars drove around the park with anti-Deer Forest signs.

"They don't see the other side of the story and there's always two sides to it," Schroeder says. "Yeah, the past is the past but it's time to let go and help the park."

But others in the community disagree.

"It's not the past," says Kimberly Peters from St. Joseph County. "It's still here. It's still a problem."

It's now up to a judge to decide what happens to the federal complaint filed by the USDA. And there could be more on the way.

A USDA spokeswoman confirms the agency is continuing a second, ongoing investigation into the park. But we don't know why or what it's about.

As for that USDA permit to exhibit certain animals, Modica allowed it to lapse last September and Gadberry applied for it earlier this year.

WSBT reached out to John Modica and am still waiting to hear back.

It's not clear yet what all this means for people who visit the park or live nearby.

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