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POSTED NOVEMBER 2, 2006    Print this Story 

Investigation Continues, New River Zoo
Is Still Closed

By Fawn Roark

The New River Zoo in Fleetwood was closed Tuesday, Oct. 17th, and an ongoing investigation by the Ashe Animal Control and the UDSA is currently being held to determine what exactly happened when a 36-year-old Hamilton woman, Susan Thomas, was bitten on the arm and wrist area by a leopard.
Director Jeff Jones of Ashe Animal Control said Monday that original statements made in the investigation were recanted. Since the original statements were given, Thomas has now made allegations that Zoo Owner Keith Stroud accompanied her and allowed her to pet the leopard in it’s cage. Jones said Monday that after the original statements were recanted, both Thomas and Stroud were re-interviewed and Animal Control officers are in the process of obtaining an interview and information from EMS personnel who responded to the scene.

Jones said they determined that Thomas crossed the barrier fence and proceeded to put her hand and arm into the leopard’s cage via the gate area of the pen. A female black leopard, Diane, then bit down on the woman’s arm. Original statements provided said that Owner Keith Stroud of the New River Zoo observed what was going on and ran up the path to the woman. He tried to get the leopard to release and after a short struggle he was able to get the leopard to release Thomas’ arm.

Jones said they determined that Thomas crossed the barrier fence and proceeded to put her hand and arm into the leopard’s cage via the gate area of the pen. The leopard was euthanized and was tested for rabies because of the bite, but the rabies test was negative.

Thomas had to undergo surgery at Watauga Medical Center as a result of the injuries. Officials from the USDA are expected to visit the Zoo this week, Jones said. He added that Animal Control’s investigation will not be closed until the USDA finalizes their investigation. Jones noted that he wanted to review their findings and recommendations.

Jones has been careful to reiterate that the incident is no reflection of the New River Zoo. “Keith is a very good resource for our county and he is a very wonderful educational resource for our area. Many school groups go out there often and he does a great job educating the children and whoever goes out there. He has a great facility and he is trying to do a good thing there,” Jones noted.

Thomas’ husband, Brian, said Monday that Zoo Owner Keith Stroud allowed Susan to pet the leopard and told her it would be okay. “He allowed her to pet it – he told her where to put her hand in to pet the animal while he was petting the animal. It’s been a big mess. She’s still in a lot of pain and her wrist was broken. She has a lot of tendon and muscle damage and two surgeries to repair muscle and tendons. Susan loves animals and he told her it was real tame and she could pet the cat – that’s why she went up to rub the cat,” Brian Thomas explained. “We were hoping they would not have to put the cat down. It’s all just been a mess – we just hate they had to put the cat down.”

Thomas added that the doctor has told them that they feel like Susan Thomas will regain full use of her hand and arm. “The cat bit down on her arm twice, but they were able to go in and repair everything. We are hoping that there won’t be permanent loss and the doctor told us she should be able to make a full recovery,” he added.

Zoo Owner Keith Stroud said on Tuesday morning, “I would love to talk to you – I want to tell you what happened, but I have been advised not to talk to any reporters because of any possible litigation. I have been advised by my attorneys not to discuss this at this time.”

The Animal Protection Institute (API), a national animal advocacy organization, is again calling upon legislators to ban the ownership of dangerous wild and exotic animals in North Carolina since this incident. API’s recent investigation of the facility, and subsequent March 2006 filing of a USDA complaint citing various violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, proves that legislation protecting public safety and animal welfare must be introduced during the next legislative session.

The Institute’s investigation into the state of exotic animals kept as pets in North Carolina has spurred an in-depth investigation into the topic by the ABC News program, “20/20”, and aired Friday, October 27.

A press release from API stated: “API’s investigation proves that when it comes to the ownership of dangerous exotic animals, including tigers, bears, and primates there are serious animal welfare and public safety issues in North Carolina,” said Nicole Paquette, Director of Legal and Government Affairs of API. “We’re glad that our footage spurred “20/20” to also investigate this issue and we call on the USDA and state lawmakers to take immediate steps to protect the public before another person is seriously injured or killed. Our government officials can no longer just sit back and do nothing.”

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