MOUNT VERNON — Bob and Julie Miner, the eccentric proprietors of the DEW Haven wild animal preserve, haven’t been surprised at the controversy stirred up by a critical report about them in a national political magazine.

But they aren’t dwelling on it, either.

Their response to critics is blunt: Potential visitors shouldn’t believe all the criticism from “radical activists” or “printed in a liberal magazine.”

Come and see for yourselves, they said, although they would not allow a reporter onto their property last week, explaining that it’s their offseason and they are still getting the facility ready for their May 7 reopening, so not all safety measures are in place.

And for those still unconvinced DEW Haven is anything but a magical place? Don’t come, they said.

“What we do is controversial and even more so in this day and age,” Julie Miner said in an interview last week. “People have a right to their opinion, I guess.”

The Miners may soon be subject to stricter regulation of their property, although not because of the current controversy.

Julie Miner closes the gate at DEW Haven last week. "Every facility like ours is going to get citations," she said, acknowledging problems in the past. "If we were honestly that bad, do you think we would still exist?"

Julie Miner closes the gate at DEW Haven last week. “Every facility like ours is going to get citations,” she said, acknowledging problems in the past. “If we were honestly that bad, do you think we would still exist?” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mark Latti, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said Friday that the state is preparing to overhaul the rules that govern wildlife exhibitors and likely will host a public hearing on those proposed changes in June. He said the changes have been in the works for some time.

The wild animal preserve in Mount Vernon, a sleepy town northwest of Augusta, operated in anonymity for years, deriving its success from a loyal word-of-mouth following. When the Miners agreed two years ago to let the cable TV network Animal Planet film a documentary series there, they worried that raising their profile might draw critics who wouldn’t otherwise have known their facility existed.

They were right.

Starting in 2014, when filming began, the couple and their business have been the subjects of protests by animal activists and calls for the popular show, titled “Yankee Jungle,” to be canceled. Some even advocated closing the facility entirely.

Last month, that criticism grew louder after the magazine Mother Jones published a scathing report citing safety and animal welfare violations documented at the sanctuary – most from over a decade ago. The article relied heavily on a state investigator’s report from 1998 that called the facility “deplorable.”

Animal Planet did pull the plug on the show, but officials would not say whether the Mother Jones story played a role in that decision. In fact, they wouldn’t comment at all. Julie Miner said she and her husband had already told the producers that they didn’t want to participate in the series anymore, before Mother Jones’ story was published.

Two local movie theaters, however, canceled showings of a 2014 feature-length documentary about DEW Haven and the Miners called “Wild Home,” citing the Mother Jones investigation.

The Miners, with help from their fervent supporters, are now defending their operation against what they call radical activists.

Makeena, a female tiger, is one of more than 200 animals now living at DEW Haven. The acronym stands for "domestic, exotic and wild."

Makeena, a female tiger, is one of more than 200 animals living at DEW Haven. The acronym stands for “domestic, exotic and wild.” Kennebec Journal File Photo/Joe Phelan

Bob Miner said their animals – more than 200 currently, ranging from the mundane (goats) to the exotic (tigers, lemurs and wallabies) – saved him. He’s a disabled Vietnam veteran who has endured three strokes and a heart attack. His menagerie, which has grown and evolved over the years, has been his salvation and he’ll continue to share it, critics be damned.

“Everything we do is positive,” he said.

Kristina Snyder, an activist from New Hampshire who led protests against “Yankee Jungle” and supplied the state investigative documents that supported the Mother Jones article, said the Miners have built their entire operation around playing on people’s emotions, highlighting Bob’s status as a disabled veteran and his unabashed love for animals to distract from the conditions at their facility.

“I think the people who watch the show, they think these people are doing these wonderful things,” said Snyder, who began protesting after visiting the facility in 2014. “But having been to legitimate animal sanctuaries and rescues, the differences were astounding. It was pretty depressing.”

‘DOMESTIC, EXOTIC AND WILD’

The DEW in DEW Haven stands for “domestic, exotic and wild.” Bob Miner began collecting animals back in 1980, long before he met Julie, and has been adding to the collection ever since.

His reason for taking in animals has been well-documented: Miner was a disabled Vietnam veteran, depressed and battling health problems, when he discovered that caring for animals comforted him. He has said he started collecting animals because he “couldn’t stand people.”

During an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram last week, Miner alternated between cracking jokes and defending himself, sometimes passionately, against questions about DEW Haven’s operations. Julie often had to calm him down as he talked.

“Our animals are our life,” he said.

Although they both had experience caring for animals – Bob grew up farming, and Julie’s family owned animals – they are not wildlife biologists or veterinarians.

“We’re fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-type people,” Julie said.

The DEW Haven facility is something of a testament to Yankee frugality. Every structure, including the Miners’ house, was built by the couple by hand. To some, it may look run-down. To others, it’s rustic and charming.

DEW Haven operates as a nonprofit and the Miners said they take no salary, living on Bob’s military pension.

According to its most recent 990 tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the facility is doing well financially.

In 2012, DEW Haven made $144,861 in revenue and accepted $10,000 in donations. It spent $128,220 that year, more than 80 percent on occupancy, utilities (including food) and maintenance.

In 2013, DEW Haven’s revenues increased to $190,104, with another $8,000 in contributions. Its expenses went down, to $115,201, leaving them with more than $112,191 in assets at year’s end.

That trend continued in 2014. DEW Haven made $233,182 from ticket sales and took in $27,892 in contributions. The facility spent $165,140, but ended 2014 with $175,346 in the bank.

The facility, formerly known as DEW Animal Kingdom, is permitted as a “wildlife exhibitor” and regulated at the state level by DIF&W and at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Latti said Maine currently has 20 active exhibitor permits, ranging from places with just a few animals to York’s Wild Kingdom, a small commercial zoo.

VARYING REGULATIONS

Regulations for keeping and exhibiting wild or exotic animals differ from state to state.

In Maine, exhibitor permits are good for two years. To renew a permit, the facility must be inspected. Those inspections are routine but unannounced.

State rules say that wildlife “shall be confined at all times in stalls, rooms, or outside enclosures of such strength and type of construction that it is impossible for the animals to escape.”

Animals cannot be chained or tethered. They must be able to seek shelter from bad weather or direct sunlight. Cages and enclosures must be kept sanitary. Animals must be provided adequate water and food.

More specific regulations govern how big an enclosure must be provided for specific types of animals. A facility is given a certain amount of time to correct any violations.

The Miners describe their facility as a working farm and are proud that they built everything themselves and stretch their resources. Grain is brought in by the bagful to feed many of the animals, but the carnivores are provided meat, often fresh roadkill. Anytime someone in the area hits a deer, Bob gets a call. Once, he went and picked up a 2,200-pound horse that had gotten out of a farm and was hit by a semi.

Bob has said he’s never had any issues in 36 years, although that’s not entirely true, given the violations cited in the Mother Jones report. Julie has said the majority of issues in the magazine’s story were 14 to 18 years old.

The Mother Jones investigation cited two raids of the property, one in 1998 and another in 2002, during which state and federal officials found numerous violations, including illegally imported animals. The Miners ended up getting after-the-fact permits for those animals and were given time to address other concerns. Other than a 90-day license suspension in 1998, their permit has always been renewed since.

“What bothers me is that the past is the past,” Julie Miner said. “Every facility like ours is going to get citations. If we were honestly that bad, do you think we would still exist?”

The most recent serious violation was in 2012, when three bears had to be euthanized after they suffered injuries fighting one another. DEW was reprimanded in a report for not consulting with a veterinarian on the bears’ behavior.

One of the three tiger cubs is shown to visitors at DEW Animal Kingdom & Sanctuary in Mount Vernon. The birth of the cubs in 2014 proved to be a draw. 2014 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Joe Phelan

One of the three tiger cubs is shown to visitors at DEW Animal Kingdom & Sanctuary in Mount Vernon. The birth of the cubs in 2014 proved to be a draw. 2014 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Joe Phelan

The Miners were found in violation again in 2014 after they began hosting “tiger encounters,” where the public could feed new tiger cubs from a bottle. The couple disagreed with the state’s order to stop, but complied.

The most recent inspection conducted on July 31, 2014, by a DIF&W wildlife biologist, a game warden and a USDA inspector, determined that the facility was “generally in compliance with applicable rules.”

Just two weeks before that inspection, officials were asked to respond to a complaint lodged by Snyder, who had recently visited DEW Haven. Her complaint referred to the conditions as “appalling,” and she alleged inadequate shading for the animals, lack of water and rotting, fly-covered carcasses in some enclosures.

The USDA sent an inspector to investigate the complaint. That inspection dismissed Snyder’s allegations as “not valid,” and took no action.

Snyder said she’s most bothered by the fact that DEW Haven breeds its animals.

“They have no need to do that,” she said. “Maybe they started out as a ‘rescue’ but that’s not really accurate anymore.”

SUPPORTERS AND DETRACTORS

The growth of social media has helped animal activists to connect with like-minded people. When Snyder started a petition to get “Yankee Jungle” canceled, more than 100,000 people signed.

That’s also how Snyder connected with Monica Hooper, a former volunteer at DEW Haven who said she spent time at the facility in the late 1990s through 2001 and was not impressed with the operation, or the way the Miners ran it.

Hooper stopped volunteering there and has since become an opponent of DEW. She also accused Bob Miner of using his status as a disabled veteran to generate sympathy.

“My dad is a Vietnam vet, too, and disabled, so I know something about that,” she said.

Hooper admitted she had not seen the facility in roughly 15 years.

“I’m sure they have improved things, but I still don’t think they should be held up as this place that’s beyond reproach,” she said.

The Miners said Hooper is disgruntled and trying to hurt them for personal reasons. They said their supporters far outnumber any critics.

On the other side is Esther Dudley, who used to volunteer at DEW Haven when she lived in Sidney. Now she lives in Waterville and doesn’t have as much time, but still tries to visit a couple of times a year. She said she is amazed by how well the animals respond to the Miners, especially Bob, and thinks “Yankee Jungle” unfairly put a target on their backs.

Jesse Crandall of Lewiston used to sell grain to the Miners and has known the couple for years.

“It’s not a pretty place with million-dollar fences, but he keeps them all in. Ever since I’ve known them, I’ve never seen anything but love for those animals,” he said.

The idea of keeping feral animals confined has always been controversial, with opponents saying confinement goes against the animals’ natural instincts and takes them out of their habitats. Sometimes, their fears have been justified.

In 2014, a Hope man named James Laurita, who operated a sanctuary for two retired circus elephants, was killed in 2014 after he fell into their pen and was crushed by one of the elephants.

In 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio, Terry Thompson operated the Muskingum County Animal Farm as a private zoo for many years. The facility was often cited by officials for violations such as inadequate housing and food for the animals.

Thompson, who like Bob Miner was a Vietnam veteran who began taking in exotic animals as a form of therapy, ended up committing suicide, but before he did, he opened the gates and released 56 animals, including bears, lions and tigers, into the Ohio countryside. Law enforcement officials spent a harrowing night trying to round up the creatures, putting the entire town on alert. Most of the animals were killed but some were captured and turned over to a local zoo. Remarkably, no one but Thompson was hurt.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon said his department has never gotten complaints about the Miners or their facility. No animals have gotten loose and the business is well-regarded locally.

The cancellation of the show may end up being good for the Miners, they said. They will no longer have a spotlight on them.

Supporters of the Miners said they are not worried that the recent controversy will hurt them.

“The only people I see who are criticizing them are out-of-staters who probably drive Priuses and can’t find anything good to say about anything,” said Crandall.

 


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