Payson Exotic Zoo To Close Its Cages

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Randy Ferry, Payson Exotic Zoo's owner and tour guide has been known to talk to his animals.

But now, after 22 years, he's gearing up to tell them goodbye.

He'll be closing his home-grown, self-described "wild animal orphanage" at the end of March, he says, for "a million and one reasons."

Pressed for a primary reason, Ferry cites advancing age his and those of his fine feathered and furry friends.

"My animals are old, they're dying, and I don't want to replace them," he says. "I've been here 22 years, and I can't keep going like I've been going. I'm 52 years old now. It's time to get out and either get ready for retirement or find a real job.

"It really hurt when I lost Ralph the Lion (a few months ago) after losing so many of the other animals that I started out with, and that I raised right in my house," Ferry says. "I just can't keep doing this.' I thought that by now I'd be ahead, and that I'd be able to build a nicer place. But we can't do it. We get three good months (of business) and nine bad months.

"And no matter what, I still have to be here, still have to feed them, still have to take care of them. I do have one part-time helper, but if I got sick, I'd really be in trouble. I can't risk that."

Most of Ferry's exotic animals will be given a home by the Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, Scottsdale-based organization that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife.

Ferry expects Southwest Wildlife to relocate his exotic animals one at a time, "starting as close to the end of March as we can, so the animals will still be here for people to see. The last one we'll transport is the buck, because he'd hurt himself with his antlers right now. We have to wait until those come off ...

"And then I have baby farm animals I'm going to have to sell: I've got five baby goats, two baby lambs and pheasants and everything else being born right now. Plus, the older sheep I'll need to get rid of, too. I'll be taking some of them myself I'll just have to get a job to be able to afford feeding them."

The Payson Exotic Zoo, which opened two-and-a-half miles east of Star Valley in January 1979, has provided Rim country residents and passers-by with an up-close look at a menagerie of animals ranging from bears and baboons to coyotes and chickens.

Since day one, Ferry has been the official tour guide for every zoo visitor guiding them along the dirt trail that winds between exhibits, introducing them to each animal much like non-zoo keepers introduce their closest friends sharing each animal's history, showing off their tricks, and tossing in a few bad jokes here and there for free.

Among the most popular attractions is the javelina family George, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea; Macho the donkey, who does a swell impression of the original president George Bush; a coyote that, on command, can say "Hi!" (sort of); and Bert the bear, a jelly-belly giant who appears to be as playful as a puppy.

Most of the zoo's original inhabitants, which earned Ferry extra money by appearing in movies, television commercials and print ads (Ralph the Lion was Valley Realtor Russ Lyon's very visible logo for many years) have died.

Over the years, the two-acre zoo also became an orphanage. Coyotes, sheep, llamas, peacocks and an owl named Lefty have shared space with the zoo's more exotic attractions.

"How do you say no?" Ferry once wondered. "When somebody comes up and says that they have nowhere to take (an animal) you take it."

The zoo, which costs $800 to $1,000 a month to operate, has been largely dependent on donations and ticket sales. Each ticket buys someone's dinner, Ferry says.

"It hasn't been great financially, but it's been enjoyable," says Ferry, looking back on his Payson experience. "I've been doing what I always wanted to do. And look at how many businesses have come and gone in this area over the last 22 years. We've done very good for the small population we have."

Ferry's favorite memories are those which are unlikely to fall within the experience of anyone else on earth. For example:

"I'll never forget raising three baboons, a bobcat and a deer, all in a one-bedroom trailer. It's not something that I'd ever do again, but it's fun to look back and think, 'Wow! I did that? That's stupid!'

"It was very cramped. I had to put the baboons in the bathtub, because they'd scoot the cages all over the trailer. And then the deer would go into the cage, and the bobcat would stay in the bedroom until we put them up, then he'd come out and run around like a house cat."

The Payson Zoo is east of Star Valley. For one last look, take Highway 260 to Lion Springs Road and turn right. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fridays through Wednesdays. The zoo is closed Thursdays. For more information or to arrange purchase of his less exotic animals call Ferry at 474-5435.

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