Behind the zebra escape is exotic animal breeding business with dozens of violations The escape of three zebras from a Md. farm in late August has captivated the region, but the person at the center of it all — exotic animal breeder Jerry Holly — has remained an enigma.
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Behind the zebra escape is exotic animal breeding business with dozens of violations

A newborn baby zebra named Seka rests at the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia. Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo hide caption

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The escape of three zebras from a Maryland farm in late August has captivated the region, but the person at the center of it all — exotic animal breeder Jerry Holly — has remained an enigma throughout the saga.

The zebra owner has not spoken to members of the media or otherwise made public statements, even after the recent revelation that one of the escaped zebras died in a snare trap a month ago.

Prince George's County officials say he owned 39 zebras on a 300-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Md (including the three escapees).

An examination of public records, licenses, and reports shows an exotic animal breeding business in two states that spans far more than zebras: Holly has owned large cats, primates, giraffes, and bears, among other animals. Florida's wildlife agency sought to revoke his state-issued license over violations of rules regarding animals, and Holly has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than 100 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to maintain fencing around the pastures that contained zebras, as well as unclean housing and water for animals, lack of proper record keeping, and animals with open wounds.

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Holly has not responded to multiple requests for comment over the past two weeks, including a series of voicemails left on a recording for "Jerry Holly." When reached over the phone, family members declined to comment.

While he has kept a low-profile throughout the recent media frenzy, "Jerry Holly is very well known" in the business, according to Dominique Ferraro, the founder of Zebras R Us, a sales platform for zebras and other animals. "He has some of the most rare exotics in the country and the quality of his animals is exceptional."

While she says she didn't have prior knowledge of any of Holly's citations, Ferraro is skeptical of the work of inspectors. "The government is in business to find fault," she says. "If they didn't fault anybody for things with animals, they'd be out of a job."

Holly isn't just well known to others in the exotic animals trade in the United States, a difficult-to-track market that includes breeders, exhibitors, and dealers. He's also on the radar of animal welfare advocates, who have been tracking his business for the past decade.

"He has sent animals all over the country and acquired animals from all over the country," says Lisa Wathne, a senior strategist for captive wildlife with the Humane Society of the United States. "You'll see his inspection reports and see that there's some really crummy stuff in there."

Holly has had a Class A USDA breeding license through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

For many years, he was licensed for two sites — one in Florida and one in Maryland. That license was canceled in June 2020 due to failure to renew, according to agency emails provided to DCist/WAMU. Holly received a new license for the Maryland location in October 2020. It's unclear whether there were any animals on the Upper Marlboro property during the intervening months.

Licenses needed to be renewed annually, according to the USDA's website, until the summer of 2020 when the agency began transitioning to three-year licenses.

Holly's license was set to expire on October 7 of this year, more than a month after the escape, according to a list on the APHIS website (which was last updated at the end of September). The agency had not provided DCist/WAMU with information about whether his license has been renewed by publication time.

Certificates of veterinary inspection show that Holly has sold animals including monkeys, camels, and lemurs to small zoos like Cherokee Bear Zoo in Cherokee, NC and Aloha Safari Zoo in Cameron, NC.

In court documents from five years ago, Holly stated that he purchased most of his animals at sales in Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio.

For example, Holly purchased four young zebras, the oldest being two months old, from Triple W Livestock Auction in Cookville, TN in September 2018, according to a certificate of veterinary inspection. He has also bought animals, including a zebra and a bengal cat, at Missouri's Lolli Brothers Livestock Market, one of the country's largest livestock auction houses (its regular sales of exotic animals have drawn sharp criticism from animal rights activists).

DCist/WAMU reached out to each of these businesses, and all either did not respond or declined to comment on Holly or his business.

The founder of International Zebra-Zorse-Zonkey Association, Nancy Nunke, estimated that about 3,000 zebras live in American backyards in a 2014 interview with NPR, but it's impossible to quantify zebra ownership. Nunke said there was a surge in interest after the 2005 release of the movie Racing Stripes, though zebras are significantly more difficult to train than horses.

Wathne says animal rights advocates have been seeing even more zebras within the past five years, comparing trends in exotic wildlife ownership to ebbing tides of dog breed popularity. "They seem to have been showing up more again in the past few years ... and exhibitors drag them around to various places in petting zoos, whether it's fairs or pumpkin patches or wherever," she says.

Two zebras were in the news for escaping from an indoor zoo at a pumpkin patch in Illinois earlier this month. And it's possible to rent zebras for appearances at events, as Selling Sunset star Christine Quinn did for her engagement party.

Wathne adds that "some people think exotic animals cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some do, but many don't. And for people who sadly want to have a pet that is unusual, you know, different from anything the neighbors have, a lot of people will plop down that kind of money for an unusual pet."

Zebras typically cost between $3,000-$7,000 to purchase, depending on the precise species, age, and other variables.

Ferraro, of Zebras R Us, says that private breeders are generally trying to "improve upon the quality of animal that you have" for conservation purposes. "We try to gain in numbers of exotic animals that are endangered or going extinct." She points out that Holly has Grevy's zebras among his animals, which is the largest species of zebra, and is also the most endangered. (The National Zoo has one on site, a male named Moyo.)

Animal rights groups, however, contest the idea that private breeders are motivated by conservation.

"I think people don't understand the extent that animals suffer in this industry," says Wathne, who says that claims about breeding to save the species are a "bid to sugarcoat a really disturbing and disgusting business," pointing to photographs and video evidence of animals stacked in small cages on top of one another at auction houses and the sale of exotic animals to ranches for "canned hunts," wherein people pay to shoot them.

Wathne, who is among the advocates tracking Holly's business activities, also pointed specifically to USDA inspection reports of Holly's properties, which show more than 100 violations of the Animal Welfare Act over the past decade.

Born in 1945, Holly said he had been working with animals for 30 years in a 2004 article in the Gainesville Sun.

Maryland property records indicate that he has owned property in Upper Marlboro since 1984. A court case from 1998 places Holly in the area at the time, but by 1999, he had moved to Florida, according to a report from the Washington Post, which described him as "a former Upper Marlboro farm owner."

The Gainesville Sun article describes Holly's then four-year-old farm in Micanopy, Florida, called the Micanopy Zoological Preserve, after it acquired 53 new exotic animals from a local theme park. (It seems that zebras have always given Holly a bit of trouble. From the Sun: "Jerry Holly said last week's move went well and there were no injuries, but they were unable to catch a couple of zebras. He planned to return to Silver Springs for another try at rounding them up.") The story reported that the "preserve is designed to breed and preserve exotic and endangered animals."

At the time, Holly described himself as a collector who had only sold a few zebras, but had potential aspirations of opening a zoo.

A man who answered the phone at the Micanopy Zoological Preserve last week said that Jerry Holly has not been associated with the farm for the past few years, and denied any involvement between the preserve and Holly or the escaped zebras. The man otherwise declined to comment on the record.

According to local public radio station WUFT, Micanopy Zoological Preserve is currently owned and run by Rhudy Holly, Jerry Holly's son.

Certificates of veterinary inspection distinguish between the Micanopy Zoological Preserve and a business run by Jerry Holly in Micanopy, which state agencies referred to as Shilo Zoo and Park. (Incorporation documents spell it Shiloh Zoo and Park.)

Holly was licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its predecessor agencies to possess captive wildlife to exhibit or sell starting in 2002, according to a 2016 ruling in an administrative hearing before the agency. In that case, Holly fought the agency's decision to deny his applications for wildlife licenses and revoke his game farm license because of a "history of violations" of the agency's rules and statutes.

Beginning with the first inspection in 2002, inspectors found "caging and enclosure deficiencies," according to the findings of fact in the case. As Holly's animal inventory grew in 2004, so did his list of violations, though inspectors reported that he was correcting the listed deficiencies. In 2004, Holly pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of improper caging.

From around 2007-2010, the enclosures and recordkeeping appeared to be in order, aside from one patas monkey escape.

But in 2012, the agency filed a criminal citation against Holly after inspectors found a series of enclosure, maintenance, and sanitation issues, per the judge's ruling. While many were corrected afterwards, inspectors found additional violations, like some cages being too small for animals, according to court documents.

According to the agency, Holly blamed a caretaker's misunderstanding for discrepancies in recordkeeping, though ultimately said the buck stopped with him. Holly hired the caretaker because he was dealing with health issues, according to the findings of fact. The agency order claims the caretaker told the inspector that Holly was "very protective of his animals ... if there ever was a problem with an animal, [Holly] would make sure that it was taken to the vet. He would drop everything to care for his animals."

"The financial impact [of revoking the licenses] would be 'devastating,' possibly leading to bankruptcy," the filing states.

The administrative judge ultimately determined that Holly's history of correcting violations and a lack of clear precedent meant that there wasn't "clear and convincing evidence" to revoke his license. Instead, given the violations, in particular the failure of accurate recordkeeping, the judge recommended a suspension of Holly's license for six months, after which an on-site inspection could show his facility was fully compliant with the wildlife agency's rules.

The case continued until 2019, when the District Court of Appeal of Florida denied Holly's petition to review the agency's actions.

The issues that Florida wildlife inspectors found at Holly's farm in Florida mirror what USDA inspectors have outlined in their reports about his exotic animal business.

In March 2013, the USDA fined Holly $12,143 for 46 outlined violations of the Animal Welfare Act that the agency says occurred between March 2010 and February 2013. A large portion of violations — most of which appear to have occurred in Florida — describe shoddy record-keeping or failing to have someone available to accompany officials during an inspection, but others describe dangerous enclosures for animals, including sharp edges like nails pointing inwards and dangling, rusty wires.

In one May 2010 incident, a male African lion being transported in Florida was observed with a raw area on its head and blood dripping from its mouth after a torn metal sheet had been ripped from the side of the enclosure, per the report.

Other violations included not keeping water dispensers and enclosures clean for a bevy of animals. In one instance in April 2012 on his Florida property, Holly "failed to remove accumulations of feces from the enclosure housing a kangaroo, which were so pervasive that the kangaroo could not sit, lay, or stand without coming into contact with the feces," the report states.

Enclosures weren't always secure, either, the USDA found, meaning that animals could escape, other animals could enter the enclosure, or there wasn't suitable protection from the elements. Among the violations in this vein, Holly reportedly failed to replace broken fence boards surrounding the giraffe and zebra enclosures, or to replace broken mesh wire fencing in the zebra enclosure in Florida.

But the fine was not the last time Holly's business operation drew the attention of authorities. USDA inspection reports show he racked up at least 70 more violations of the Animal Welfare Act since then, most of them occurring on his Florida property. Some include additional issues with the zebra enclosures.

"The fence surrounding the pasture containing seven zebra and a camel is still damaged and in disrepair, there has been no attempt to repair or alter this structure since the last inspection, to ensure it's secure and safe for the animals," reads a November 24, 2014 USDA inspection report from the Florida property. "There are large gaping holes with exposed sharp broken wires protruding into the enclosure. On the side of this enclosure there are several boards that have come loose and are hanging. The holes may allow the zebras to escape or unwanted animals to enter and harm the zebras and camels."

Enclosures for small primates were also described as having rusty frames, unsecured wire mesh, and wide gaps on the sides and bottom, as well as unsanitary conditions. One red-handed tamarin was discovered dead on the floor of its enclosure days prior, due to what the caretaker believes was cold temperatures, per the report.

That report also states that "there are an insufficient number of trained employees to care for the nonhuman primates."

Other inspection reports say that the business transferred infant primates to be hand-raised and bottle fed, including to locations that did not have a USDA license.

In the Gainesville Sun article from 2004, Holly is on the record in favor of hand-raising animals.

"When you hand raise them, you save their lives," Holly said. "We like to have them tame enough where we can touch them."

Wathne says the practice is "cruel psychologically" because it tears away the animal from its mother at a very young age. "There's nothing worse you can do to a primate than to deprive it of the companionship of its own species."

Inspectors also found that the Florida facility lacked an enhancement plan for the primates, meaning species-specific efforts to ensure the animals thrive, and some primates had significant hair loss. "Over-grooming can be a sign of psychological distress associated with insufficient environmental enhancement or other stressors," the November 30, 2017 report states.

While the Maryland property received several inspection reports that did not turn up any non-compliant items, there were multiple attempted inspections where no one was available to accompany officials, which is considered a violation.

There were also repeated issues with fencing and record keeping in Upper Marlboro, especially when it came to camels, according to USDA inspection reports.

An inspection report from April 2014 found a 5-foot perimeter fence around the property with gaps in it. The two camel pastures were not entirely surrounded by a 6-foot perimeter fence, per the report. The report also pointed out problems with the decorative board fencing alongside the tree line of the enclosure, which had "detached boards and [was] in disrepair." Additionally, the wire panel fencing and gates were "loosely attached." The inspector called for the fence to be removed or replaced to protect the animals from injury.

In February 2015, inspectors at the Upper Marlboro farm reported a lack of completed paperwork regarding animals' veterinary care. There were only three camels on the property — half of the amount of the prior inspection, with "no records documenting the deaths or euthanasia" of the camels, per inspectors. The report reiterated concerns about the decorative board fencing, wire panel fencing, and gates.

An October 2015 inspection report in Upper Marlboro found additional recordkeeping issues related to the camels on the property, as well as persisting problems with the decorative board fencing, wire panel fencing, and gates.

A subsequent report, in March 2016, says inspectors found no non-compliant items.

The most recently available inspection report for the Maryland property, from early May 2021, found that there were no camels there. A later conversation determined that the camels had been living in Florida for about a year, despite no records documenting the animals' transfer or current address. The report states that officials did not inspect any animals on the property, and it makes no mention of zebras.

Prince George's County officials say they became aware of three escaped zebras from Holly's farm on August 31. More than two weeks later, Maryland Natural Resources Police responded to a call about a deceased animal on September 16, finding one of the zebras dead in a snare trap on private property in Upper Marlboro.

However, the county did not make the death public until nearly a month later, after inquiries from the Washington Post. It is illegal to use snare traps in Prince George's County, and the matter is under investigation.

The latest plan to recapture the remaining escapees included using some of Holly's other zebras as bait, which the county says has been approved by experts. But the animals' fate is unclear, and there hasn't been a recent public sighting. Linda Lowe, the Prince George's County Department of Environment spokesperson, says there are no current updates.

"Our priority is to make sure the zebras are captured and returned to the herd," Prince George's County Department of Environment Director Andrea L. Crooms said in a statement last week. "Once this is accomplished, the County will conduct a further investigation, and any actions including any appropriate charges against the owner will be evaluated."

Kayla Hewitt contributed reporting to this story.

Previously:One Of The Escaped Zebras In Prince George's County DiedCould The Escaped Zebras Survive Roaming Around Prince George's County Forever?

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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