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Woman collects exotic animals

A juvenile zebra, a Great Dane and a little Boston terrier romped together, playfully nipping at each other, making noise and hopping in circles. A curious emu and a small pack of alpacas jogged over to see what all the excitement was about.

The scene was nothing out of the ordinary at Maria Kieffer-Wiese’s home. She was busy bottle feeding a young camel and barely blinked an eye at the rambunctious creatures.

The North Whidbey woman has created a small zoo on her hobby farm since moving to the island in 1999. The list of her animals is simply breathtaking: a zebra, five alpacas, two donkeys, three emus, two dogs, a camel, cats, peacocks, two turkeys, a pot belly pig, chickens, geese, sheep and more goats than she can count.

Kieffer-Wiese undoubtedly cares about her menagerie of creatures. The animals themselves are well-fed and seem happy. The dogs, goats, donkeys, emus and even the turkeys are very friendly and interested in visitors to the small farm. The goats brazenly tug at clothing and seem to enjoy a good head scratch.

But there’s trouble in animal paradise. County officials, law enforcement and other residents in her Benton Place neighborhood have concerns about Kieffer-Wiese and her animals. Many of the neighbors are upset because the animals often escape from their enclosure and come onto their property, relieving themselves and browsing flower gardens.

Others are concerned about the well-being of the animals — especially since several of the animals that escaped have died — and some worry about the danger of raising exotic animals.

Rights vs. responsibilities

The case raises some larger issues of how government should balance the rights of animal owners, the community and the animals themselves. Should the state or county do anything to regulate or prevent a woman from creating her own mini-Noah’s Ark in the countryside? Does the county need more regulations?

Kieffer-Wiese admits that she’s had trouble with fencing and animals escaping, though she blames others for blowing the situation out of proportion. She said she had two wallabies — similar to small kangaroos — that escaped into a nearby woods. One of the wallabies died and the other disappeared.

She had an emu that died after it escaped. The big Australian bird apparently went into shock after being corralled by a deputy. She has an African serval — a mild type of wild cat — which she said moves freely on and off her property. She had a small flock of black swans that disappeared.

Kieffer-Wiese said she’s had to euthanize a couple of her dogs. One got loose and was shot in the eye. The other started attacking the camel and other animals.

Kieffer-Wiese, who speaks with a distinct German accent, has a different attitude about animals and property boundaries than most people. She said animals like dogs, cats and goats should be allowed to be loose in the countryside. She questions why people who get upset about peacocks in their yards even live in the country.

“Goats are not dangerous,” she said. “The worst they can do is eat the petunias and I’m willing to pay for any damage they do.”

Furthermore, Kieffer-Wiese said she’s doing all that she can to keep her animals from getting loose. She’s hired people to build fences, but they haven’t always done a very good job.

For Kieffer-Wiese, it’s been pretty difficult the last few years. She explained that she moved to the island after being diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. “I knew my life was over as far as relationships go,” she said, “so I decided to move here and raise my animals.”

Then her house burned down about a year and a half ago and she’s been living in a trailer on the property since then.

On the other side is the law. Jan Smith, the spokesperson for the Island County Sheriff’s Office, pointed out that it’s simply against county regulations to let animals run loose. She said law enforcement is concerned about “the humane care of animals and the danger of having large animals on the roadway.”

Oak Harbor Police Officer Steve Nordstrand lives just down the road from the animal house. He said most neighbors have become pretty frustrated with the loose animals and dealing with Kieffer-Wiese. He said they report the problems and deputies investigate, but nothing seems to stick.

Nordstrand said the neighborhood is very concerned with Kieffer-Wiese adopting a large number of cats, though now she’s apparently not allowed to adopt any more felines from the shelter. “There were thousands of cats running around here for awhile,” he said. “It was crazy.”

Nordstrand emphasizes that the neighbors aren’t trying to pick on the woman. “She has all the rights in the world to own animals,” he said, “but they need to be taken care of properly and she needs to keep them on her property.”

Marge Rehaume, who lives near Kieffer-Wiese with her husband, said the loose animals have been a major nuisance in her life. She said the animals relieve themselves on her property. She can’t let her little dog out in the yard, she said, because she doesn’t know “what kind of creatures might be out there.” Last summer, an emu “got after” her.

“The other day I drove out of the driveway and there was a zebra,” she said. “I have really weird dreams so I had to pinch myself.”

The couple started a petition about Kieffer-Wiese that they were going to send to the county commissioners, but it ended since there wasn’t a neighborhood agreement.

Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes said she’s responded to about a dozen neighbor complaints of loose animals, including a recent allegation of a zebra at large. She’s impounded a goat and Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation has impounded a couple of Kieffer-Wiese’s dogs.

Barnes has cited Kieffer-Wiese a number of times, but she said there’s little else she can do to allay the neighbors’ concerns.

County has little control

“It’s not against the law for her to own these animals,” she said. County regulations do little to address exotic animals. There are only controls on the ownership of wolf hybrids and exotic cats.

According to the planning department, the county code calls for best management practices in raising domestic animals, but it doesn’t say anything about camels or wallabies. A large animal like a cow is supposed to have an acre of pasture land.

Based on this, Kieffer-Wiese’s five-acre property seems a little crowded with animals. She has a barn and a fenced-in area within a larger enclosure. Visitors need to watch where they step.

Kieffer-Wiese said she buys her more exotic animals from a dealer in Spokane. She says she hopes to buy a reindeer or a monkey next and wants to replace the wallabies.

Anyone with a large collection of animals who continues to get more and more concerns animal-care experts like Randy Lockwood, Humane Society of the United States vice president. He’s studied cases of animal hoarder syndrome throughout the country and has testified as an expert witness in several well-publicized cases.

“It’s a real problem that is not well understood,” he said. “For some reason it’s also a growing problem throughout the country.”

Animal hoarders have a compulsion to accumulate large numbers of animals and often fail to care for them properly. According to a Dec. 2 article in “Psychology Today,” the majority of animal hoarders studied were women and 72 percent were single, widowed or divorced.

However, it’s difficult to define a hoarder. Many people in Keiffer-Weise’s situation just like animals.

Exotics usually cause problems

Richard Farinato, the director of the captive wildlife program for the Humane Society of the U.S., said owning exotic animals inevitably leads to problems. He explained that non-domesticated animals, or even exotics like camels, are unpredictable and downright dangerous.

Farinato said zebras, for example, cause more injuries in zoos than any other animal. “Wallabies may seem harmless,” he said, “but the first time you get kicked, and they disembowel you from chest to crotch, then you won’t think they are so cute.”

Monkeys raised as pets become “psychopathic little creatures in fur coats,” he said.

Farinato explained that there’s a “grace period” of good behavior with young exotic animals. A mother-child bond between owner and animal may develop. “But when sexual maturity kicks in,” he said, “the relationship changes and strange things happen.”

Farinato said Washington is one of a half dozen states that don’t have laws prohibiting or limiting the ownership of exotic animals. In fact, he said the Humane Society and other animal groups have targeted the state to lobby for stronger laws.

Similarly, Lockwood said he is working to educate the public about the problem of animal hoarding. He points out that several states have laws regarding animal hoarding and he hopes others will follow.

Out on Benton Place, Kieffer-Wiese’s yard is still littered with apparent debris from the fire. She said she plans to start building a new home among the animals this summer.

“But with all these problems,” she said, “I may just move away instead.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-1166.

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