Olympic Game Farm in Sequim is the only place in the country where visitors can get up close and personal with wild animals while sitting in their cars.
At the drive-through menagerie, black-tongued bison shove their heads through the car windows. Chain-link fences separate the lions and tigers in their enclosures. The bears, numbering well into the dozens, are on hand to accept slices of bread, which can be purchased at the gate.
Former residents included animals who appeared in movies and television shows such as “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar” and “Northern Exposure.” There are now over 300 animals on the Game Farm, which has been featured on shows like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres. On YouTube, it’s been viewed more than a million times.
The safety of visitors and animals at the zoo has been called into question by federal inspectors, local officials, and outraged guests in recent decades due to shifting standards in animal care. Animal welfare violations at the Game Farm have been repeatedly cited in federal inspection reports dating back to 1995, according to the Seattle Times’ review of 25 federal inspection reports.
Zoo animals were suffering from untreated medical conditions and staff members feared for their safety during the 1990s and early 2000s, according to those reports, as well as records from two lawsuits and interviews with 10 former employees.
For the last time, the USDA cited Game Farm for poor veterinary care in 2017 and fined it in 2004. There are several anomalies in USDA inspection reports, including a four-year period where the facility was found to have hundreds of animals that it never owned.
USDA’s enforcement capacity has been slashed and guidelines have been changed to allow the agency to hide some violations from public view, which has prompted these reports. In the Obama administration, those changes began, and they have continued under Trump.
According to emails obtained through a public records request, even when federal inspectors gave the Game Farm a clean bill of health, state officials at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife privately opposed moving animals there, citing “awful housing conditions,” federal citations and citizen complaints.
Attorney General’s Office ruled that the Game Farm was exempt from Washington’s ban on keeping exotic animals because the Legislature specifically exempted the Game Farm.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a federal lawsuit against Game Farm last year alleging “mistreatment and unsafe captivity” of “scores of animals.” As a result, Game Farm management declined multiple interview requests from The Seattle Times.
the zoo “is a Northwest institution,” according to Game Farm attorney Jason Morgan, who wrote in an email that the zoo’s owners “are committed to sound stewardship of the animals.” Animal enclosures have improved significantly since 2008 when a new management team took over, he said.
The goal of the ALDF lawsuit, according to Morgan, is to compel private menageries like the Game Farm to transfer animals to sanctuaries and to enforce standards that go beyond federal law. According to him, the ALDF’s lawsuit was “counterproductive” because it was based on unfounded claims of animal cruelty.
“People had a different take on animals” when the Game Farm opened its doors 50 years ago, says Shawn Behrenfeld, who worked there as a teen in the 1990s before becoming a veterinarian. By looking at a bear in a cage, visitors hoped to feel closer to nature.
“Pretty good,” he said of the Game Farm’s animal care. “By today’s standards, they would have been shut down in an instant.”
A jaguar’s bleeding paws
The founder of Game Farm, Lloyd Beebe, hunted the animals before putting them on display. In the late 1930s, he was Washington’s most prolific cougar hunter. According to Beebe’s autobiography, he had a secret ambition to direct animal films.
Cameras and cubs were brought home to Sequim, Washington, where the cougar and bear cubs were brought to play on his roughly 80-acre property. After seeing his home movies, Walt and Roy Disney decided to hire Beebe to take a trip around the world.
Beebe worked on films shot in the Amazon and the Arctic while working for Disney. Several live-action Disney films, including The Vanishing Prairie, The Incredible Journey, and Grizzly Adams, helped cement his reputation as an animal trainer.
According to former employees, Game Farm’s focus changed from movies to tours over time. His death in 2011 was the final straw for Beebe.
Game Farm employees filed a lawsuit in 1999 claiming that the animals were mistreated from the 1980s to the early 2000s, according to former employees and a 1999 lawsuit was filed by the Game Farm employees. The case was arbitrated out of court before it even went to trial.