Zoo Boise isn’t the only place in the Treasure Valley to see exotic animals.
Just over the Gem County line north of Caldwell, Babby Farms is home to dozens of creatures from all over the world, including a camel, coatimundis, otters, several species of primates, horses, kangaroos, and colorful birds from the far reaches of the globe. Because many of the animals are “hand-raised,” Babby Farms allows visitors to get up close and personal with the animal kingdom in a way not available in a traditional zoo, all for an $11 admission fee.
But, a group of former Babby Farms employees is making allegations of poor animal care and dangerous conditions for employees, volunteers, and guests who visit the farm. A change.org petition titled “Help us shut down Babby Farms in Caldwell, Idaho,” started by Gabrielle Derrey, who identifies herself as a former employee, gathered over 15,000 signatures as of November 30.
Babby Farms denies allegations
Over the course of three weeks, BoiseDev interviewed five employees on the record and sought comment from several others to learn more about their allegations and what they observed while working on the property. All of the former employees who interviewed expressed a deep love of the animals on the farm but expressed concern about small cages and the number of staff members. These low-staffing levels made it challenging to keep enclosures appropriately cleaned, a lack of animal enrichment, and what they called improper safety measures to prevent employees and guests from injury, the employees said.
Others described poor nutrition and several animal deaths they say were preventable, most notably a beloved zebra named Zeus, who former employees say died in October. Three employees interviewed said the farm regularly operated when temperatures were above 100 degrees, potentially making the farm dangerous for animals and guests due to the lack of shade.
“During my employment, I witnessed animal mistreatment to the extreme, many animals died, and management has done nothing to mitigate this cruelty,” Derrey wrote in the change.org petition. “I and other staff members witnessed these animals suffering, but no matter how much the staff spoke up, our voices were never heeded.”
Babby Farms vehemently denies these claims. Before shutting down its Facebook page, the organization encouraged the public to look at its inspection record with the United States Department of Agriculture and touted staff’s experience with animals. The comments on this post, and others, were turned off.
“It is important to us that we first establish that these claims are, in fact, untrue,” the 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.”
Babby Farms initially told BoiseDev via Facebook it would grant an interview and allow a tour of the facility after the results of an inspection from the Idaho Department of Agriculture were made public. But the Facebook page shut down before the report became available last week.
BoiseDev visited the farm last month to request an interview. The staff declined to comment or give a tour citing other previous interviews to other outlets, including KBOI2. A call to TRACE Inc, the nonprofit that owns Babby Farms, asking questions about the allegations was referred back to the farm. A note left for TRACE Inc. President Cheryl Harris at the organization’s Boise office asking for a meeting or a phone call was not returned.
Employees say cage design leads to injuries
Babby Farms isn’t open to the public all year.
From May 1 through September 30, the organization staffs up and welcomes visitors onto the property to see the exhibits, pay for pony rides and participate in encounters with various animals. The other seven months of the year, Babby Farms shrinks its workforce down to a skeleton crew and keeps the majority of the animals in smaller, chain-link cages indoors to shield them from Idaho’s winter weather, according to all of the former employees interviewed by BoiseDev.
All of the former employees BoiseDev interviewed were seasonal workers who would come on board during the summer. In their interviews, they all remarked on how dirty enclosures got due to the low-staffing and the design of the pens themselves. They said none of the cages had separate rooms for the animals to go into while staff members entered the cage to clean, meaning workers always had to be in the enclosure with the animal without protective gear and limited training.
According to former zookeeper Samantha Shea, this led to several incidents where animals bit or otherwise attacked staff members and volunteers. She worked at Babby Farms for the 2017 season and has several years of experience in zoology at multiple facilities, including training at the Cat Tails Zoological Center in Spokane.
“They have untrained staff that are 16, 17, 18 years old who love animals and see these potentially dangerous animals as teddy bears and go in there and touch them,” Shea said.
‘Never something I ever imagined myself doing’
The lack of cleanliness got worse throughout the 2021 season, according to former employee Carly Beach. She said there were multiple waves of staff departures due to younger staff members feeling like their reports of sexual harassment were not taken seriously by management. All but Shea, who hadn’t worked at the farm since 2017, interviewed by BoiseDev, discussed these allegations at length.
But, the primary issue that caused employees to want to go to the public with their concerns was several animal deaths. The change.org petition and two other employees interviewed by BoiseDev alleged that a few dozen passed away at Babby Farms due to preventable causes since 2017.
The former employees said they reached this number by studying photo albums and other informal staff records of animals no longer on the property.
Carly Beach, an employee for the 2021 season, said the death of Zeus, a zebra, from malnutrition was a tipping point for staff to speak out. According to USDA records, Babby Farms had a zebra in July of 2021, but it was not on the property when inspectors from the Idaho Department of Agriculture toured the farm earlier this month. She said Zeus was younger than ten years old. Zebras typically live up to 20 years in the wild and up to 40 in captivity.
“This is never something I ever imagined myself doing, but they hired people who are passionate and wanted to take care of these animals and created this culture and forces you to bond with these animals, and then you find out so many of them have died,” Beach said, getting emotional. “Once Zeus died, we couldn’t keep it in anymore. It wasn’t fair to the animals, and it wasn’t fair to the public.”
Spic and span inspections after complaints
After the social media criticism and a flood of complaints hit the desk of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, the state sent inspectors with veterinary expertise to Babby Farms to do an unannounced visit. Staff from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Gem County Sheriff’s Office also were on the tour.
The facility passed with flying colors, according to documents obtained by BoiseDev in a public records request. Inspectors checked out 102 animals at Babby Farms, noting their weight, cleanliness of the pens, and their behavior. All of them earned good marks.
“Limited odor and fecal matter were present throughout,” the inspection report read. “Enclosures were fit to contain each respective animal, mainly consisting of chain-link panels. Food and water were noted in all enclosures of Buildings 1 and 2 and the primate enclosures. Staff were actively feeding and cleaning throughout the inspection.”
At the time of the inspection in July, there were 107 animals on the property. According to inspection reports posted on the agency’s website, this is an increase from the 70 animals USDA inspectors observed at Babby Farms in 2017.
Photos from the tour show fully stocked fridges of fresh produce, neatly organized blankets, and toys, and a whiteboard listing an enrichment schedule for the animals and other information about animal care.
This isn’t the first time someone complained to the Idaho Department of Agriculture about Babby Farms.
In June 2018, a visitor from Oregon filed a complaint to the state over the “disturbing” conditions on the property after visiting, according to documents obtained in a public records request. She noted a kangaroo that looked sick, feces piled up in cages, and a lack of fresh produce and water for animals.
On July 3, 2018, an inspector from the state came to the property to investigate. According to a report obtained by BoiseDev through a public records request, there were 137 animals at Babby Farms at that time. The facility was given a clean bill of health.
“At this time, Babby Farms appeared to be clean and well maintained,” the report said. “No underfed animals were observed, and all animals had access to fresh, clean water. There were no items in violation of ISDA rules and regulations noted at this time. Case closed.”
How did Babby Farms support people with disabilities ?
A key part of Babby Farms’ stated mission is to provide support and animal experiences to people with disabilities.
BoiseDev asked several of the former employees about programming for people with disabilities at the farm. In three of the five interviews, former employees said there were volunteers with disabilities who came to the farm through a partnership with Community Partnerships of Idaho for a few weeks during the summer to help in the gift shop, take out the trash, and do other work.
“The teenagers come out with their caseworkers and do things like run the store and take out trash,” Aymee Lichtenhan, who had worked or volunteered at Babby Farms since 2015, said. “They’re really great kids and do a great job, but there’s no real training going on, just free labor. But it’s been a huge help.”
A call to Community Partnerships of Idaho asking about Babby Farms was not returned.
TRACE Inc owns Babby Farms, a registered nonprofit that provides “education, training, and employment to the disabled in a vocational training environment.” The organization remodeled the former Montego Bay restaurant site in 2019 for a training facility, BoiseDev previously reported.
The organization’s publicly available tax forms list $26 million in program expenses and 1,012 employees in December 2019. But, BoiseDev could not find a website for the company advertising its programs to the public.
TRACE’s publicly available tax forms say it receives grants to operate from the federal government through the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. Agency spokesman Brian Hoey told BoiseDev TRACE had a $25 million contract with the federal government in fiscal year 2020 and employed approximately 700 people. As part of the contract, TRACE’s workers, who have disabilities, provided commissary shelf stocking, custodial, landscaping, and warehousing services at 18 military bases and government facilities.
Hoey said TRACE’S employees work at Mountain Home Airforce Base and bases in Hawaii, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina.
The nonprofit is not a Community Rehabilitation Partner with the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation or accredited with the CARF International, an organization that accredits health and human services nonprofits required by the state of Idaho to receive state grants. A call to RSAS, another accreditor the state of Idaho requires, about TRACE Inc was returned with a voice mail, but the quality of the message was not clear, and a call back was not answered.
Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Administer Jane Donnellan had not heard of TRACE Inc.
“I know nothing about this company,” she told BoiseDev.
Bites, scratches, kicks common, former employees say
Every former employee interviewed for this story had a story about either being bitten by an animal at Babby Farms, seeing another employee injured or filing reports with management about injured guests.
Employees said most of these bites were typically small pinches from feeding the pigs and goats in the petting zoo, but employees described more serious incidents. This includes primates and lemurs biting guests who could stick their hands between the bars of cages in the petting zoo and kicking staff and guests who were in the pen. The primates are also known for stealing glasses and ripping earrings off of guests within reach of the animals.
Last summer, Allison Lizaso, who was 23 at the time, was asked to take guests who had a young child with them on an encounter with coatimundis, which are native to South and Central America, as well as Mexico. She took the guests into the cage with one of the animals for them to pet, but Lizaso and two other former employees who also told stories about this incident say she accidentally brought them into the cage with the incorrect coatimundi.
This resulted in the young child getting injured by the animal, she said. Lizaso was very upset by the incident and said she fled the area crying. She was eventually sent home by management.
“It was a very traumatic experience, and I wanted to respond to the public that I was the person in there with them and that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen,” Lizaso said.
The employees interviewed by BoiseDev were divided on what should happen to the farm.
Some said they hoped it would be shut down as soon as possible so the animals could find homes at different zoos as quickly as possible. Others hoped the complaints would help drive more investment in the farm from TRACE Inc, like more staffing, better enrichment, and bigger enclosures.
“If they can fix all of that, I am okay with them staying open, but I don’t think it’s possible to fix that without rehoming at least a few of the more needy animals that they are caring for,” Janie Moore, a former seasonal employee who worked there from 2019 through 2021. “If they can’t do all of that, I have no problem with them shutting down. The unfortunate reality is some animals will have to be euthanized, but after working with those animals for three years and seeing the conditions they are in, that might be a better option than living like they’re currently living.”