Why Wyoming Is One Of Only Two States Without A Zoo

Besides being the two least populated states, Wyoming and Vermont have something else in common — the only states without a zoo. While you could put one in the Cowboy State, it would be a permitting nightmare.

AR
Andrew Rossi

June 02, 20249 min read

Patricia Wyer gives treats to rescued racoons at the Broken Bandit Wildlife Center east of Cheyenne.
Patricia Wyer gives treats to rescued racoons at the Broken Bandit Wildlife Center east of Cheyenne. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)

What’s one thing Wyoming and Vermont have in common? Besides being the two least-populated states, they’re the only ones without a zoo.

That’s not counting the wildlife show that is Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, particularly in the summer tourism season when bear and bison jams are common.

And you’re likely to be played by Limpy the Coyote for some sympathetic snacks (don’t feed the wildlife). But the roads aren’t zoos, even if too many tourists treat them like they are.

Wyoming has had several small zoos earlier in its history, like the Pioneer Park Zoo in Sheridan, but they’ve been gone for decades.

Anyone who wants to see lions and tigers must go out of state, although there are plenty of Wyoming bears people can see, but to behind the safety of an enclosure.

That’s why there won’t be any Wyoming listings like the ones posted by National Land Realty in North Carolina. The real estate company has two zoological properties for sale, complete with small arks of exotic animals.

Anyone buying the 186-acre Zootastic of Lake Norman or the 66-acre Aloha Safari Park, both in North Carolina, will get more than 300 species of exotic animals and the infrastructure to care for, exhibit and potentially profit from them.

The menageries include giraffes, antelope, hyenas and many other critters, in addition to the typical lions, tigers and bears.

If some enterprising Wyomingite decided to buy one of these zoos and move it to the Cowboy State, it would be doable, but difficult.

Among other things, creating a new zoological park in Wyoming would require permits — a lot of permits. But there’s more to it than that.

Domestic, Domesticated And Permitted

Any animals in a Wyoming zoo would fall under the jurisdiction of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and there is a litany of permits and regulations for importing and possessing exotic wildlife.

But the main reason there isn’t a zoo here is that there hasn’t been a sustained effort to establish one.

“Historically, some have tried to (open a private zoo) in the past and not gotten permitted for zoos and wildlife farms,” Game and Fish Lander Region spokesperson Rene Schell told Cowboy State Daily. “But they could, and each animal would be permitted (or prohibited) individually and on a case-by-case basis.”

According to Wyoming law, owning living wildlife requires a permit unless it has been deemed exempt or prohibited.

Exempt animals have been designated as “domestic” or “domesticated,” and there are some exotic animals in both categories.

For instance, the same exemption for cats, dogs, horses and other “domestic animals” includes zebu, a South Asian cattle breed. The state of Wyoming also considers bison domestic, so long as they aren’t wild.

Llamas and alpacas are exempt exotic animals on Wyoming’s domesticated list, which is why they can occasionally be seen on ranches throughout the Cowboy State.

Chinchillas, ostriches, emus, Bactrian and dromedary camels, and zebras are also exempt domesticated animals.

Domestic and domesticated animals are specifically exempt from Game and Fish Chapter 10, which states that “except as otherwise specified or exempted in this regulation, a permit from the department is required prior to importation, possession, confinement or transportation of any living warm-blooded wildlife.”

Any exotic animal that isn’t domestic or domesticated requires extensive permitting to legally enter and stay in Wyoming, let alone as a long-term resident in a zoo or safari park. Pachyderms, felids and unusual ungulates require a permit or two.

  • Aloha Safari Park is a 66-acre zoo for sale in North Carolina.
    Aloha Safari Park is a 66-acre zoo for sale in North Carolina. (Land.com)
  • Zooastic of Lake Norman is a 186-acre zoo complex for sale in North Carolina.
    Zooastic of Lake Norman is a 186-acre zoo complex for sale in North Carolina. (Land.com)

Exhibiting Exotics

Patricia Wyer is the director of the Broken Bandit Wildlife Center in Cheyenne. In addition to domestic horses, raccoons and other Wyoming wildlife kept and rehabilitated at her facility, she said she also has some “permitted exotics” that don’t appear on the Cowboy State’s exempt lists.

“We have coatimundis, a crab-eating raccoon from South America and a permitted bobcat,” she told Cowboy State Daily.

But Broken Bandit doesn’t keep these animals with the intent to display them. Wyer doesn’t consider her wildlife center a zoo, nor does Wyoming Game and Fish. Nevertheless, her facility must adhere to the regulations laid out by the department.

“They dictate what our enclosure sizes need to be and what kind of stuff needs to be incorporated in their enclosures,” she said. “They also dictate the required care, from spaying and neutering to microchipping, that kind of stuff.”

There’s no overall permit covering the care and keeping of exotic animals. Instead, Wyer has a specialty permit for each exotic at the center.

Coatimundis are distant relatives of raccoons that live in South America and the southeastern United States. Wyer has to keep her group secure, as they could wreak havoc if they ever escaped.

“In the off chance they were to get out, they could wipe out an entire endangered species,” she said. “They couldn't survive in the wintertime but could destroy a colony of black-footed ferrets.”

Wyer also said several non-permissible animals, including some zoological staples, are forbidden under state regulations.

“Large cats, like tigers and mountain lions, are not permissible animals (for private ownership),” she said. “I also think some non-native hoofstock are (non-permissible) because they have different diseases that can be transmitted through certain types of animals.”

Many people choose to ignore Wyoming’s laws and regulations, especially if there’s a financial incentive to do so. But Schell said the department hasn’t had many run-ins with exotic animals.

“We have had pet fish released into various ponds around the state,” she said. “We found a caiman in a pond in Cheyenne.”

Passing Permits

So hypothetically, could a Wyomingite buy a complete zoo of exotic animals? Yes, but it’d be a potential nightmare of permitting.

Wyoming State Statute 23-1-302 gives the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission the authority “to regulate or prohibit the importation of exotic species, small game animals, fur-bearing animals, protected animals, game birds, migratory birds, protected birds and fish into Wyoming, and to regulate the importation of big or trophy game animals into Wyoming only for exhibition purposes or for zoos.”

“The Department of Agriculture would oversee those animals defined as livestock or domesticated animals,” Schell said. “Each permit application the Wyoming Game and Fish would receive would be approved case-by-case.”

Essentially, the commission could approve or deny any animal for a Wyoming zoo, even if it’s potentially non-permissible for private ownership. That could be a potential green light for Colossal Biosciences if it ever attempts to rewild wooly mammoths in the Cowboy State.

However, Schell said the permits would be issued to the person, not the animal.

“The permits would not transfer with the sale of the property or business,” she said. “They are assigned to an individual.”

That’s also the case in North Carolina. The person or entity that buys either of the two zoological parks for sale would be required to obtain a Class C- Exhibitor permit from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wyer said the same process would apply to anyone who wanted to purchase the Broken Bandit Wildlife Center and its animals, but she doesn’t think it would be difficult for the right buyer.

“If somebody were to take over the operation, they would have to be able to be approved and permitted through Wyoming Game and Fish,” she said. “I believe some of the permits require background checks and that kind of stuff, but as long as they're approved through Wyoming Game and Fish, the transfer wouldn't be very difficult.”

  • The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals.
    The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals. (National Land Realty via Land.com)
  • The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals.
    The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals. (National Land Realty via Land.com)
  • The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals.
    The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals. (National Land Realty via Land.com)
  • The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals.
    The 66-acre Aloha Safari Park in Harnett County, North Carolina, comes complete with everything a new zoo owner needs, including animals. (National Land Realty via Land.com)

We Bought A Zoo

In the 2011 film “We Bought A Zoo,” Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson endure the bureaucratic nitpicks of a strict USDA inspector to open a zoo, enduring through the power of love and family. The movie was loosely based on the true story of the Dartmoor Zoological Park bought by a British family in 2006.

If the same story were to unfold in Wyoming, Damon’s tribulations with the USDA wouldn’t engender much sympathy. He’d know what he was getting into when he signed the dotted line.

Schell said the extensive permitting process ensures a zoo full of exotic animals in Wyoming wouldn’t endanger the state’s native wildlife. Any issues raised by Wyoming Game and Fish or the USDA are necessary to ensure the safety and survival of the animals on both sides of the fence.

“Some parameters that our permitting section would consider are diseases these animals could carry that may threaten the wildlife in the state,” she said, “level of containment difficulty, the level of difficulty to meet humane living conditions for the possessed species, animal and public safety concerns upon escape or illegal release, just to name a few.”

The bottom line is there’s nothing’s stopping someone from establishing a zoo in Wyoming.

The catch is finding someone with the money to do it and patience to plow through a mountain of permitting.

In the meantime, Wyomingites will have to make do watching the plentiful videos of visitors behaving badly around wildlife in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.