The first thing to know about Mark Kilby, aside from the fact that he owns the Luray Zoo, is that he thinks dogs make terrible pets. “Dogs are the worst thing on the planet. They’re dirty, they’re dangerous, they’re annoying,” he says. “They’re also socially acceptable.” He shrugs. “I think people are brainwashed.”
Kilby explains that he much prefers reptiles. According to its website, his small zoo boasts “one of the largest venomous snake collections on the east coast.” There are also monkeys, a tiger, lemurs, a coati and even a kookaburra — all in all, some 220 animals living on three acres just outside Luray, Va. The zoo’s front door is situated in a giant faux crocodile mouth that is propped open with a wooden beam. Atop the fence that surrounds the zoo, a large wooden sign painted like a tiger proclaims, “Trespassers will be eaten.”
When they are not cleaning enclosures or feeding animals, Kilby and his wife, Christine, take visitors on “discovery tours,” a chance to handle and feed certain species. Most of the animals at the zoo were either seized by authorities or surrendered by exotic-pet owners who could no longer take care of them. Because many of the animals were bred in captivity, they must be cared for by humans for the rest of their lives. The Luray Zoo, Kilby says, is their “forever” home, which is why he refers to the place as a “rescue zoo,” over the objections of animal welfare advocates who point out that it is not accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the industry gold-standard.
For his part, Kilby thinks there’s no need to become accredited. “I know that I’m good at what I do,” he says, adding that, according to accrediting standards, his tiger enclosure wouldn’t pass muster, and he couldn’t interact with her like he does. Visitors “enjoy their intimate visit here — they see my interaction with my animals. Part of the accreditation is not being able to interact with the animals, and I know that cat would go insane if she was cut off.”
Nothing about its status seems to have deterred the visitors wending their way through the zoo on a sunny April afternoon. Suzanne Smith of Brooklyn explains that she found the Luray Zoo online. She wanted to visit, she says, because she was seeking a zoo that was “humanitarian.”
Smith is one of the millions of people who each year flock to the roughly 2,600 zoos, carnivals and other so-called animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That figure has not changed much in a decade despite a shift in public opinion that contributed to Feld Entertainment’s decision to retire the elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses last year and to end all circus performances last month. The vast majority of small zoos are unaccredited, subject only to the rules set forth in the Animal Welfare Act and any state or local statutes that might apply. Unaccredited zoos will sometimes breed animals, perhaps for sale, or allow up-close encounters, such as the swim with tiger cubs that one Florida facility used to offer. These practices, animal welfare advocates maintain, are bad for the animals and bad for people because, like circuses, they reinforce a dangerous notion that animals can be used for entertainment and that being close to wild animals is safe.
Kilby’s close relationship with animals started early. His mother owned a pet shop, and to hear him tell it, his whole house, his whole life, was animals. In college, he triple-majored in sociology, biology and psychology because, he says, “it’s very important, when dealing with people or animals, to understand their personalities.”
Still, he never planned to own a zoo. “I’m the weirdo of the zoo industry,” he says. “Because I didn’t pick this, it picked me.” While working as a mailman, in 1996, he bought the place from a couple who wanted to retire. “They bred animals for sale,” he recalls. “I stopped that.”
The place needed a lot of work. The septic system was full and was coming up through the ground. The reptile room needed to be gutted. “People sometimes complain that it doesn’t look that good around here, but believe me,” he says, “it’s so much better than it used to be.”
There are two alligators, still as statues, behind a glass enclosure. They’ve been at the zoo as long as it has been open, and there’s another off display that was removed from a private residence. Virginia requires a permit to own an alligator. “Depending on the county, law enforcement will call me to help them get animals that are being kept illegally out of the house. If I can, I’ll take them here,” Kilby says. “They call me because I know what I’m doing, and they know they’ll never see a bill.” (Mike Null, chief animal control officer for Stafford County, confirms this. “In addition to offering us a place to take exotics in lieu of euthanasia, Mr. Kilby has presented training to my staff on proper handling and capture techniques for exotics,” Null said in an email. “He has been a great resource to our agency and others.”)
In addition to reptiles, Kilby likes birds (he’s a falconer) and has about 30 at his zoo. There’s also Yukon, a Canada lynx that was owned by a man who wanted to use the animal for community education and outreach but could no longer care for it. Bella, a macaque that lived with a woman in her home until she got cancer, lives next door to Mr. Blueberries, a vervet monkey who was surrendered by a woman after her husband died.
Outside Mr. Blueberries’s enclosure, a young man with a wispy mustache looks from side to side before making a mock charge at the monkey. The creature leaps back, tail raised. A girl standing next to him laughs. I ask Kilby whether ill-behaved guests are a problem. “Yes,” he says, with no hesitation. “How often?” I ask. “Yearly? Monthly? Daily?”
He turns and looks at me. “Yes,” he says.
Rules of conduct are posted on the zoo’s website, along with a warning that a guest may be removed at any time. Kilby rattles off a few such instances, including one time when he saw a guy outside the tiger’s enclosure survey his surroundings and say, “Hey, man, I’m going to jump over this barricade and pet that tiger.” Kilby replied, “Hey, man, tell you what, you do that, and I’ll break your [expletive] face.”
Shortly after sharing this story, Kilby jumps the enclosure and pets the tiger, saying it’s okay for him to do it because “she knows me. And I know her.”
Later, I learn that in 2008, the same tiger, known as Star, bit the hand of a 16-year-old volunteer at the zoo, severing her pinkie finger.
For this, the zoo was fined $1,500 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and $250 by the USDA. OSHA also advised prohibiting employees from coming into contact with the tiger.
USDA, asked recently about that interaction, says Kilby and his employees may come into contact with the tiger, provided they’ve been properly trained and follow the Animal Welfare Act. But it’s still risky. Lisa Wathne, a captive-animal specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, says, “It’s sheer luck, not expertise, that’s kept him from being attacked.”
USDA inspectors have cited Luray Zoo for things like unclean cages, but nothing close to the kind of horrific conditions that led to the temporary closing of the Natural Bridge Zoo, about 100 miles southwest in Lexington, Va. There, in 2015, in the wake of an undercover Humane Society investigation, federal inspectors found more than 40 animals suffering from conditions such as hair loss and lameness. They also found that old and sick guinea pigs were euthanized by being smashed on the ground, then fed to tigers.
Some of Kilby’s practices align with voluntary standards set by animal welfare experts, but many don’t. The zoo does meet USDA requirements, which follow the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act. But those requirements are minimal compared with voluntary standards.
Kilby said he’s fine with regulators, though he sometimes questions their orders: Once, a USDA inspector mentioned that she didn’t like that the capuchin monkey was by herself and that the monkey needed a companion. He didn’t think so but took her advice.
“USDA lady shows up. She says the capuchin needs a friend. So, I brought in a male, sent them to a hotel.” He turns to the female monkey for a second and says, “I told you not to go there with him! I told you!” Then he turns back to me. “Male monkey went back home, and boom, six months later, baby. Companion.”
(Upon hearing this, Wathne says, “What?! He bred them?” Later, she says: “At least she has company now.”)
James Serpell, a professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says he has no problem with zoos that are run well. “The problem,” he explains, “is that most roadside zoos have neither the space nor the expertise to do it well. You have large animals kept in small enclosures. Those accredited by organizations like the [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] are able to hire and keep experts, and their captive-breeding programs have a purpose. All this sends the right message to the public.”
Animal rights advocates want small operators such as Kilby to reinforce the message that these animals aren’t pets and that zoos and sanctuaries are a necessary evil because of lax animal welfare laws. But Kilby doesn’t accept that. He casts things in populist terms: Small zoos, he says, are better because they take the “junk” that other places don’t want. And he believes he helps educate the public in ways those organizations can’t. “Everyday people are better than scientists,” he says, “because they’re more relatable, and people understand them better.”
Outside the tiger’s cage, Smith, the visitor who said she wanted to go to a humanitarian zoo, approaches him. “Hey, Mark,” she says. “What can we do about waking up the Bengal tiger? We wish to be amused.”
“Which arm are you least liking?” Kilby replies. Smith cackles. Kilby then offers to try to wake the tiger. “Really?” Smith asks.
“Well,” he says, “you tolerated that silly joke.”
Lia Kvatum is a writer in Silver Spring, Md. Karine Aigner is a photographer in Washington. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.
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