A Hanover County man is making a last-ditch effort to keep chimpanzees caged in his backyard while avoiding criminal charges for housing potentially dangerous animals.
Curtis W. Shepperson has a private zoo in his backyard, with permits for dozens of animals, including various breeds of monkeys, a kangaroo, a zebra and two chimpanzees. In addition to the two permitted chimpanzees, the county discovered after multiple chimp escapes that Shepperson also had four illegal chimps.
The county gave him a June 23 deadline to get rid of them. Now he is trying to persuade the Board of Supervisors to let him keep them.
"It's just really not appropriate for you to have six, full-grown chimpanzees in private hands," Hanover Supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek said. "It's a public safety issue."
Shepperson has had more than two years to get rid of the four unauthorized chimps. The county could also revoke Shepperson's permit for the two authorized chimpanzees, for violating the terms of the permit, but there has been no action to do so.
Shepperson was granted permits by county supervisors for two chimps in 1999 and 2000, according to county documents.
That was before a series of national news stories about people being attacked by chimpanzees, including a Connecticut woman who was mauled in 2009 by a chimpanzee that disfigured her face and ripped off her hands.
"They are full-grown chimpanzees," said neighbor C.E. "Kip" Davis, who served as a county supervisor more than 20 years ago. "They are predisposed genetically to rip your hands, your face and your genitals off, and they hunt in packs. They're predators."
Davis shares a property line with Shepperson, and he estimates that his home is 1,200 to 1,800 yards from the exotic animals in a backyard zoo known as Windy Oaks Animal Farm on Bultaco Trail in a rural section of eastern Hanover.
Davis said there have been multiple incidents of animal escapes, including once when an escaped spider monkey got in Davis' yard.
The county has documented at least two occasions when chimpanzees escaped from Shepperson's property.
The last known chimp escape was in 2010, according to Deputy County Administrator James P. "Jim" Taylor.
A chimp was loose overnight and a 6-year-old boy spotted the chimp as it appeared to be attempting to get in his family's house, Taylor said. The chimp was tranquilized and returned to the Sheppersons.
"We're just really fortunate that something didn't happen last time -- somebody wasn't hurt or killed," Taylor said.
Shepperson declined to be interviewed for this report.
Shepperson's home is adjacent to the home of his daughter, Kimberly K. Shepperson, 30, who faces charges of aggravated malicious wounding. Authorities say she attacked her 11-year-old son with an ax and set fire to the house Feb. 21.
The Board of Supervisors is holding a public hearing Wednesday on Curtis Shepperson's request to keep all six chimps. The four in question are 8 to 15 years old.
Taylor said the county staff plans to recommend denial.
If Shepperson fails to get rid of the chimps by the June 23 deadline, he could be charged with Class 4 misdemeanors, which come with fines of up to $250 for each conviction. The county could also have the animals seized and possibly euthanized.
"It is our position that they should be relocated as a complete chimpanzee family to where they can live in their natural habitat," Kelly-Wiecek said, adding that the county doesn't want to euthanize the chimps.
"And I don't think anybody even wants to go down that path at this point," she said.
Kelly-Wiecek said many sanctuaries don't want to take only four of the chimps because members of the species grow familylike bounds when kept together for long periods and they become distressed when torn apart.
As part of an agreement with the county, Shepperson made security improvements to the facility in recent years to reduce the odds of escapes.
However, Davis said he's not convinced it won't happen again.
"I hate to quote a silly movie, but who was it in 'Jurassic Park' who said, 'Life will find a way'?" Davis said, pointing to the possibility of severe weather or someone failing to lock a gate.
Davis, a soon-to-be grandfather, said he wants his grandson to be able to safely play in his backyard.
"I've come to the conclusion I'm not going to be afraid," said Davis, adding that he'll be armed with a 20-gauge shotgun with a laser. "I'm prepared to defend my property (if there's) clear and present danger."
"Now, I'm not sure whether some of these people think that they're second cousins to these chimps, but my religious belief teaches that we're not," Davis said. "They're not kin to me."
Davis said animal noises often travel to his property, which is separated from the private zoo by woods.
"I can remember when it was a nice, little peaceful neighborhood, and now it's (like something out of) a Tarzan movie most days," Davis said.
(804) 649-6391 ___