At Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, visitors can get closer to wild animals than almost anywhere else in the country — without getting out of the car.

Black-tongued bison shove their faces through car windows at the drive-through menagerie. Lions and tigers lie in cages behind chain-link fences. And more than a dozen brown bears wave their paws for drivers to toss slices of bread that can be bought at the gate.

It was originally the home of animal actors for films and TV shows, including “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar” and “Northern Exposure.” Today, the Game Farm, with close to 300 animals, is a social media sensation, featured on Oprah and the Ellen DeGeneres show. It has tens of millions of views on YouTube.

But as expectations around animal care have changed in the past decades, federal inspectors, local officials and concerned visitors have questioned the safety of people and animals at the zoo.

As the Game Farm received glowing news coverage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) repeatedly cited the private zoo for animal welfare violations, according to a Seattle Times review of 25 federal inspection reports from 1995 to 2018.

Those reports, as well as records from two lawsuits and interviews with 10 former employees, portray a zoo in distress during the 1990s and early 2000s, with animals suffering from untreated medical conditions and staff at times fearing for their safety.

The Game Farm was last cited by the USDA in 2017 for inadequate veterinary care, and last fined in 2004. But the USDA’s inspection reports are notable for their inconsistencies, including a four-year period when they recorded the presence of hundreds of animals the facility has never owned.

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Those reports come as the USDA, the only wildlife agency overseeing the Game Farm, has seen its enforcement capability slashed and guidelines changed to allow the agency to remove some violations from public view. Those changes were initiated during the Obama administration and have continued under the Trump administration.

During the period when federal inspectors gave the Game Farm a clean bill of health, officials at Washington’s state Department of Fish and Wildlife privately opposed moving animals to the Game Farm, even those needing care, citing “awful housing conditions,” federal citations and citizen complaints, according to emails obtained in a public records request.

But when state officials contemplated taking action against the Game Farm a decade ago, the Attorney General’s Office ruled that they had no authority to inspect, absent a search warrant, in part because the Legislature specifically exempted the Game Farm from Washington’s ban on keeping exotic animals.

Game Farm management declined repeated requests by The Seattle Times for an interview, citing an ongoing federal lawsuit filed last year by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) which alleges “mistreatment and unsafe captivity” of “scores of animals.”

In an email, the Game Farm’s attorney, Jason Morgan, said the zoo “is a Northwest institution” with three generations of owners “committed to the sound stewardship of the animals.” Since 2008, when new management took over, it has made significant improvements to animal enclosures, he said.

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The goal of the ALDF lawsuit, Morgan said, is to enforce standards beyond federal law, and to compel private menageries like the Game Farm to transfer animals to sanctuaries. “These claims of animal cruelty are baseless and the ALDF’s lawsuit is counterproductive,” he said.

When the Game Farm opened its doors five decades ago, “people had a different take on animals,” said Shawn Behrenfeld, who worked there as a teen in the 1990s before becoming a veterinarian. “People wanted to feel close to nature by looking at a bear in a cage.”

By those standards, the Game Farm’s animal care was “pretty good,” he said. “By current standards, they’d [have been] shut down in a heartbeat.”

Olympic Game Farm’s bears are famous for sitting up and waving to get bread from visitors driving by.  (Courtesy of Matthew McQuilken, 2010)
Olympic Game Farm’s bears are famous for sitting up and waving to get bread from visitors driving by. (Courtesy of Matthew McQuilken, 2010)

A jaguar’s bleeding paws

Before he put animals on display, Game Farm founder Lloyd Beebe hunted them. The dairy farmer and logger was Washington’s top cougar killer in the late 1930s. But the soft-spoken Beebe had a secret ambition, according to his autobiography: He wanted to make animal movies.

He bought a camera and began bringing home cougar and bear cubs to film rollicking through his roughly 80-acre Sequim property. His home movies caught the attention of Walt and Roy Disney, who hired Beebe to circle the globe.

With Disney, Beebe worked behind the scenes on movies filmed in the Amazon and the Arctic. His renown as an animal trainer was cemented by live-action Disney flicks, including “The Vanishing Prairie,” “The Incredible Journey” and “Grizzly Adams.”

Beebe founded the Game Farm on the Olympic Peninsula to house his animal actors, and opened it for tours in 1972.

As years passed, the Game Farm’s focus shifted from movies to tours, according to former employees. Beebe stepped back from day-to-day management; he died in 2011.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, animals escaped, employees suffered injuries, interactions between visitors and animals weren’t monitored and animals went without health care, according to former employees and a 1999 lawsuit filed by Game Farm employees alleging animal cruelty. The lawsuit was settled out of court.

According to depositions in the lawsuit, a rhinoceros’ horn grew so big — more than 4 feet long and parallel to the ground — it impeded his eating. It began splintering near the rhino’s nostril, causing an infection, said Dr. Brian Marts, a veterinarian working on-call for the farm from 1978 to 2012. The horn had to be sawed off — twice.

This rhino’s horn grew so long and misshapen it began to splinter at the base, causing an infection. Veterinarians were called in twice to saw it off. This photo from the mid-1990s, taken by a former Olympic Game Farm employee, shows the rhino’s horn at its longest. (Special to The Seattle Times)
This rhino’s horn grew so long and misshapen it began to splinter at the base, causing an infection. Veterinarians were called in twice to saw it off. This photo from the mid-1990s, taken by a former Olympic Game Farm employee, shows the rhino’s horn at its longest. (Special to The Seattle Times)

Untrained employees were asked to help care for dangerous animals, said Jason Aldrich, who worked as an animal feeder at the Game Farm in the 1990s, when he was in his early 20s.

“They wanted me to help trim the bear’s toenails,” he said. “They wanted me to get into the bear cage for $4 an hour. I wasn’t really down for that.”

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A Siberian tiger named Demetrius threw himself against his chain-link enclosure when someone walked by, said former employee Regan Keith. Injuries weren’t unheard of: Keith’s boss was bitten by a wolf.

Keith grew especially upset when a jaguar’s claws grew into its footpads, causing them to bleed constantly and making it impossible for the cat to walk or eat. “My very last tour, I let everything fly,” Keith said. “You want to know why the jaguar’s not moving? Because she can’t get up. She would lay there and starve herself because she can’t move.”

One bear escaped so often that neighbors grew used to phoning the Beebes: “Houdini’s on the street again.” Employees and Sequim residents remember animals being fed doughnuts, white bread, marshmallows and expired meat from the local food bank.

In 2015, after a USDA official questioned whether white bread was “a species-appropriate snack,” the Game Farm changed policies: Visitors could only feed the animals whole wheat bread.

An African lion “house cat”

Despite the concerns, some of the Game Farm’s former employees support its educational value of allowing people to get closer to animals than they otherwise could.

“To walk up and be around a 600-pound African lion and have him be like a house cat was incredible,” said former employee Charles Keys. “Being around the animals and having respect for their power was the best part of working there.”

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For decades, local media heaped praise on the Game Farm, gilding its reputation as a treasured institution. A 1997 Kitsap Sun profile of Beebe praised his “success with animals.” Even after animal-rights groups protested conditions there, The Seattle Times listed the Game Farm in its suggested summer attractions for years.

As the Game Farm leaned on its Disneyfied image, USDA inspectors found repeated violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including 21 violations from 2002 to 2004 that resulted in penalties of $4,675.

The USDA specifically cited the Game Farm for improper veterinary care as far back as 1990, six times between 1995 and 2004, and again in 2017. The Game Farm does not currently have veterinarians on staff, although it does have them on call, Morgan, the Game Farm attorney, wrote in an email.

Former on-call vet Marts disputes the idea that the animals lacked good care. “I was out there three or four times a month, helping elk babies being born, helping an ostrich that got its neck all torn up,” he said. “Unless you’re looking at receipts, how do you know the veterinary care is inadequate?”

In 2017, inspectors found that the Game Farm was not giving animals medication that had been prescribed to them in the previous two years. The pills were still in their bottles. Morgan said the medication was discontinued at the instruction of the attending veterinarian. That veterinarian declined to comment.

“If they’re not giving meds, animals are in chronic pain, or chronic infection,” said Sara Penhallegon, director of Center Valley Animal Rescue in Quilcene, who is slated to serve as an expert witness for the ALDF in its pending lawsuit. “That can be life-threatening.”

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Morgan wrote the Game Farm is “dedicated to ensuring that [its] animals are well cared for.”

Tigers and other big cats are kept behind a chain-link fence at the Game Farm. Since 2007, when this photo was taken, the Game Farm has expanded these enclosures.   (Courtesy of Matthew McQuilken)
Tigers and other big cats are kept behind a chain-link fence at the Game Farm. Since 2007, when this photo was taken, the Game Farm has expanded these enclosures. (Courtesy of Matthew McQuilken)

“100% certain”

From 2006 to 2014, only one person inspected the Game Farm for USDA. In those years, in sharp contrast to the previous decade, the inspector didn’t record a single violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The reports, though, have gaps.

Once, she recorded not inspecting any animals. And three times in four years she incorrectly recorded that the Game Farm possessed hundreds of marmosets and tamarin monkeys. Game Farm President Robert Beebe, Lloyd’s grandson, didn’t recall ever owning those animals, according to his attorneys.

A USDA representative said the inventories were based off Game Farm records. But USDA inspection reports in 2004 and 2017 reflect that the Game Farm did not keep records of its animal populations.

The USDA, understaffed for its inspection and regulatory duties for years, has reported that the number of its inspections plummeted in 2018. Last year, as staffing fell, the agency contemplated allowing inspectors to schedule visits. Currently, inspections are supposed to be unannounced, a USDA spokesperson wrote in an email, although according to a Game Farm attorney, not every inspection was a surprise.

In 2016, the agency changed its guidelines to allow inspectors to document violations as “teachable moments” if animal safety isn’t directly threatened. Normally, violations are posted on the USDA’s website; teachable moments are only available through Freedom of Information Act requests, which typically take months.

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The USDA has flagged two teachable moments for The Game Farm in the past three years, documents provided by Game Farm attorneys show — for failing to provide clean, dry bedding for animals and failing to trim animals’ hooves.

While the USDA was noting “no noncompliant items” at the Game Farm, officials at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife were raising concerns. In 2008, the state’s lead wildlife veterinarian, Kristin Mansfield, visited the Game Farm as a tourist. Soon after, the department asked the state Attorney General’s Office about the extent of its regulatory authority.

The Attorney General’s Office concluded that without strong evidence of illegal activity, the state had none. “WDFW can, however, attempt to work with the USDA,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote in a memo.

The gap in state oversight stems in part from a carve-out to a 2007 dangerous-wildlife law that allowed the Game Farm to continue to acquire and possess animals like lions, tigers and bears that other private owners could not.

When earlier versions of that law didn’t specifically exempt the Game Farm, former state Sen. Jim Hargrove — who represented the Game Farm’s district for more than 30 years — voted to block it, according to Humane Society Vice President Jennifer Hillman, who lobbied for the legislation.

Hargrove, who retired in 2016, said in a phone interview and text message that he didn’t recall helping the Game Farm gain the exemption, and wasn’t very familiar with the institution, although in 2011 he co-sponsored a resolution commending the Game Farm’s founders for their “contribution to the Olympic Peninsula.”

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While the USDA continued to find the Game Farm compliant, Mansfield in 2011 still had concerns about the facility. When a colleague asked whether the department could move a deer to the Game Farm, Mansfield balked, citing the “awful housing conditions … and the multitude of USDA citations and citizen complaints.”

“I am 100% certain that they are violating our laws (propagating native elk; selling or otherwise disposing of mature branch-antlered bulls; taking in immature cougars),” she wrote, according to an email obtained through a public records request.

Rather than place the deer at the Game Farm, she recommended euthanasia, or placement at another zoo. The state sent the deer to the Game Farm anyway, and then sent seven more deer there two years later, records show.

But Mansfield and two of her colleagues kept warning about conditions at the Game Farm, according to internal emails. In 2016, she advised another state agency not to allow the Game Farm to obtain a grizzly bear cub.

The roughly 80-acre Olympic Game Farm was originally a home for animals who appeared on TV shows and movies. Now, most of the animals aren’t former actors. They come from zoos, from owners who can no longer care for them or were born there. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The roughly 80-acre Olympic Game Farm was originally a home for animals who appeared on TV shows and movies. Now, most of the animals aren’t former actors. They come from zoos, from owners who can no longer care for them or were born there. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A lawsuit, and questions

The lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund last December, which alleges animal mistreatment and violations of the Endangered Species Act, could take years to resolve.

Game Farm attorneys said the suit is misguided and will “drain resources away from the Olympic Game Farm that would otherwise be spent on the animals.”

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Current owner Robert Beebe has made improvements since he took over in 2008, including rebuilding big-cat enclosures and adding water features for bears. All of the animal enclosures exceed federal requirements, attorneys said, which mandate that animals have enough space to stand up and turn around.

The ALDF asked that the Game Farm transfer its animals to a sanctuary or become a sanctuary itself. It doesn’t know where it would place the Game Farm’s animals but, said ALDF attorney Danny Waltz, “our experience has been that sanctuaries have consistently stepped up.”

Other animal advocates are less certain.

Penhallegon, of the Peninsula’s Center Valley Animal Rescue, said she scoured the country for a sanctuary to take seven bison she’s trying to find a home for, but found only one facility with room. The Game Farm has close to 40 bison, according to USDA reports.

To become an accredited sanctuary, the Game Farm would have to close its doors to most visitors, depriving it of a means of supporting its animals.

Proponents of menageries like the Game Farm say they serve a valuable purpose for private citizens who thought a tiger cub would be cute, but found a full-grown tiger much less so. Without the Game Farm, those animals might be euthanized.

Some of the Game Farm’s collection of close to 300 animals arrived from private zoos as far away as Montana and West Virginia. Others are from zoos closer to home. Still others were born at the farm.

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Many of the Game Farm’s animals, attorneys said, were donated to the facility — including Koda the coyote, a former pet in need of reconstructive surgery after he was shot in the jaw; tigers Czar and Sasha, whose owners were no longer able to care for them; and lion Sampson, trained as a movie actor.

“If a guy out in Florida has tigers in his apartment, the only alternative is to kill them,” said Marts, the Game Farm’s former vet.

But animal advocates say that death isn’t always the worst thing for captive animals, if their future is to live in a cage on permanent display.

“Sometimes death is the best gift we can give an animal,” said Penhallegon. “And that’s coming from someone who runs a no-kill shelter.”