USDA Unbothered by Continued Denials for Access to Exotic Animal Facility, Leaving Animals and the Public in Danger

May 30, 2023

a sugar glider

Under the federal Animal Welfare Act, animal breeders and dealers licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are required to make their premises available for unannounced inspections, the purpose of which is to ensure animals are receiving at least the minimum standard of care required by law. 

Although these are supposed to be surprise inspections, the USDA allows businesses to identify optimal hours for inspections. Despite this accommodation, upon an inspector’s arrival, licensees are often unavailable or tell the inspector it is not a good time. The USDA marks this as an “attempted inspection” and leaves without viewing the animals.

The USDA claims their inspection process ensures that licensed animal breeders and dealers follow the law. How can that be true if the USDA allows licensees to willfully and repeatedly refuse federal inspection of their premises?

Michigan-based Even Keel Exotics is one such business that is skirting inspections and operating without USDA oversight. Owner Zachery Keeler sells hedgehogs, foxes, sugar gliders, prairie dogs, skunks and wild cats to roadside zoos and to the public. Even Keel Exotics also offers animal encounters and behind-the-scenes tours.

This USDA-licensed facility has a long, problematic history of harming animals and endangering the public—the USDA has documented over 75 violations of the Animal Welfare Act since 2014. Some of the violations include:

  • Mice running in hedgehog areas, which were covered in mouse feces.
  • Scabbed injuries on ground squirrels’ heads with flies circling their injuries.
  • Excessive feces buildup within animal enclosures and soiled bedding underneath enclosures.
  • Lack of enrichment for primates, which can cause intense psychological trauma.
  • Rusty shelves and fences where animals are housed.
  • Animals who are soaking wet due to lack of adequate shelter from inclement weather.
  • Fencing that is too short, which could allow animals to escape and endanger the public.

In addition to the serious animal welfare issues documented at Even Keel Exotics, its conditions and practices have caused public safety issues, including a loose animal who bit a child in 2018. Just a few months later, the USDA found a fox had escaped and was sitting on top of its enclosure. The fox could have injured itself or a visitor. 

Despite documenting horrific conditions and incidents over and over again, the USDA kept licensing Even Keel Exotics to operate. And now, over the past year, Keeler has not allowed the USDA to inspect the facility seven times in a row, leaving an estimated 600 vulnerable animals in his care without any oversight at all. The last time that the USDA has been able to access the property was on May 13, 2022. Since then, each of the seven times the USDA has gone to inspect Even Keel Exotics, the facility has not allowed the USDA in. The inspectors have simply documented the visits as attempted inspections and left. 

Given that Even Keel Exotics has had severe Animal Welfare Act violations, the USDA cannot expect anything but terrible conditions for the hundreds of animals behind closed doors, and yet they have taken no action against the facility for its failure to accommodate inspections. The AWA and USDA policy require access for inspection as a condition of licensure and failure to comply is basis for revoking a license. But in typical USDA fashion, they are allowing the licensee to get away with blatantly disregarding the law. Even Keel Exotics is still open for business and encouraging the public to come visit.

Unfortunately, no access to a facility is an extremely common violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and the USDA allows licensees to commit it without consequence: 

  • Mervin and Lizzie Yoder, former dog breeders licensed by the USDA, had four consecutive attempted inspections in 2022 where they did not allow the USDA to enter their premises. The USDA never took enforcement action against them. 
  • Royal Heritage Kennel has had three consecutive attempted inspections since November 2022. The USDA has done nothing about their lack of access to the property, despite the fact that during an August 2022 inspection three months prior, the USDA found an emaciated Husky and several puppies in severe heat distress. 
  • In the notorious Daniel Gingerich case, the USDA did not inspect the property at all in 2020 due to three failed attempted inspections, and their inaction allowed hundreds of dogs to suffer and die within that timeframe.  

The USDA is failing animals in federally licensed facilities. We must do more to protect the animals and hold those that violate the law accountable. Goldie’s Act is federal legislation that, if passed, would require the USDA to conduct better inspections of all licensed facilities and enforce the Animal Welfare Act. Use our online form to contact your members of Congress today and urge them to support Goldie’s Act.