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USDA issues warning to Babby Farms after agency says animals bit two young children, animals fighting through cages

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The federal government issued a warning to an exotic animal zoo north of Caldwell after a recent inspection turned up safety concerns. 

Babby Farms, a petting zoo by Boise-based nonprofit TRACE Inc., earned an official warning from the United States Department of Agriculture on February 17 after inspectors heard reports at its January 6 inspection of two people being bitten by animals onsite. The same inspection also turned up concerns about how animals were housed near each other without a sufficient barrier between cages, allowing animals to fight. 

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Based on the vague wording in the inspection report, it is unclear if the bites occurred during the inspection or sometime in the past. Babby Farms is closed to the public over the winter when the inspection occurred. A public information officer from the USDA did not respond to BoiseDev’s inquiries to clarify the report Friday.

This is not a disciplinary action, but now that a warning has been issued it allows the USDA to pursue civil penalties, criminal charges or other sanctions if there are future violations of federal guidance on the care of animals. Babby Farms has its animal exhibition license from the USDA and is subject to surprise visits from inspections. 

Former employees of Babby Farms spoke out about the facility’s treatment of animals last year, alleging poor animal care and dangerous conditions for employees, volunteers and visitors. A BoiseDev report detailed multiple allegations of animal bites, concerns from employees about small cages and poor nutrition. 

Babby Farms did not respond to a request for comment about the warning, but they did deny the allegations of substandard care that surfaced last year in a Facebook post at the time. A call to TRACE Inc’s office seeking comment from Babby Farm’s owner Cheryl Harris was not returned. An inspection conducted by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Gem County Sheriff’s office last year turned up no violations. 

“It is important to us that we first establish that these claims are, in fact, untrue,” Babby Farms’ post said. “Ever since the very first animal was brought to our property in 2009, nothing has mattered more to any of us than the health and well-being of all our animals.”

What did the inspection find?

A January 6 inspection found two problems, one classified as “critical” and the other marked by the agency as “non-critical.”

The report says two girls were bitten by two separate animals, according to the inspection report obtained by BoiseDev. One bite occurred when a coatimundi, a mammal native to South America, jumped up and bit a young girl on the hand as she was leaving the exhibit. The second bite occurred when Gene, a brown collard lemur, bit a young girl on the hand. The inspector noted that Babby Farms staff told her both members of the public received medical attention. 

One of Babby Farms’ biggest attractions is how members of the public can get up close and personal with the animals in ways not allowed at typical zoos. Former employees told BoiseDev last year these encounters, where visitors are allowed to go into the enclosures to visit with animals, resulted in bites to visitors. 

One of the bites described to BoiseDev last year matches the inspection’s brief description of the coatimundi incident.

The inspection also noted that the outdoor primate exhibit does not have a public barrier at one section, allowing members of the public to reach through the fence and touch the animals. The side of the bobcat enclosure is also only separated from the public with a strand of rope 18 inches from the enclosure. This also allows visitors to reach under the rope and make contact with the bobcats. 

“During public exhibition steps must be taken to provide sufficient distance and or barrier between the animals and the public to assure the safety of the animals and the public and so this does not repeat,” the inspection report noted. 

A coatimundi in its winter quarters at Babby Farms. Courtesy of the Idaho Department of Agriculture

The bites and proximity between the public and the animals was classified as a critical violation. 

The “non-critical” violation resulted from a review of medical records obtained from Babby Farms’ attending veterinarian showing Marquee, a Ringtail lemur, had a laceration on her hand after being able to reach through the mesh wire to fight with an adjacent primate. The lemur is recovered. 

“Housing facilities must be constructed of such material that protect the animals from having contact with adjacent animals and being injured,” the inspection report said. “Areas where animals can make contact with the adjacent animals and become injured must be corrected to protect them from injury, so this does not repeat.”

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture has not visited the site since inspectors toured Babby Farms in 2021, ISDA spokesperson Chanel Tewalt told BoiseDev.

Clarification: This story has been clarified to reflect that the inspection report is unclear in describing when the bites occurred. It will be further updated if the USDA provides further information.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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