05/21/2012 10:28 pm ET

After Chimpanzee Escape, USDA Cites Problems At Private Virginia Zoo

WASHINGTON -- When six chimpanzees escaped from a private Mechanicsville, Va., zoo in July 2010, the local animal control chief, Kevin M. Kilgore, assured a local newspaper the "animals are in good shape and they’re well taken care of."

The chief also sung the praises of the zoo itself to The Mechanicsville Local:

Referring to Windy Oaks Animal Farm, Kilgore said, "They have a lot of really interesting and neat animals."

He said the animal care site at the farm "is a model facility. It's very safe and secure. I would consider them probably one of the more secure and humane facilities for great apes in this area."

Nearly two years later, Windy Oaks and its owner, Curtis Shepperson, have been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failure to "[d]emonstrate adequate experience and knowledge of the species (wild or exotic) they maintain."

The citation mentions "two male chimpanzees" escaping their enclosure on July 21, 2010 -- the other four escapee chimps were females who were recaptured shortly after leaving their enclosure -- and specifies that Shepperson may be fined or prosecuted for further violations.

Shepperson agreed to give up all but two of his chimpanzees in November 2010. He asked for permits to keep four, but faced opposition from animal rights groups and neighbors, one of whom, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, complained to the Board of Supervisors about other interactions with the facility's primates:

The previous summer, he said, a 4½-foot spider monkey followed him on his tractor. When animal control officers and people from the zoo came to his house, the monkey opened its mouth as if to bite and Davis saw "canine teeth much longer and larger than any large breed of dog," Davis wrote in a letter to the editor.

"I feel it was ill-advised for you to place a facility of this nature in rural Hanover County," Davis said to the board. "It has become apparent that the county is not monitoring this situation close enough. There have been several escapes and the owner has been less than professional in the way in which he has aided in the capture."

Shepperson told Richmond magazine in 2009 that he didn't intend to open a full-fledged zoo, where he's held yearly cancer fundraisers, when he and his wife first brought home a "handful of geese":

"Then my wife wanted a deer to bottle-feed, then I wanted something, and my daughter wanted something, and my son wanted something," Shepperson says. The family's collection grew into Windy Oaks Animal Farm, with about 125 animals, including lemurs, zebras, kangaroos and camels.

"It's just a hobby that went crazy," Shepperson told the Times-Dispatch.