Battle Brews Over New Zoo

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by Mike Burkett

roundup staff reporter

Due to a land-lease dispute, the Payson Exotic Zoo has died again before it had the chance to be reborn.

Shae Hensley, who estimates that he has spent $50,000 renovating the Rim country's one and only wild animal exhibit, said that the land's owner suddenly decided to raise Hensley's monthly lease payment from $250 to $1,500.

And the land's owner, Bill Brunson of Star Valley, said, "(The zoo) is not going to be there ... I run 'em off. I own the land, and I run 'em off. Their contract didn't set right. It was all mistaken."

Hensley, however, believes it is Brunson who is mistaken.

"He doesn't own anything on the property right now," Hensley, the owner-operator of the Valley-based Ponderosa Exotic Animal Programs, said. "We spent probably $50,000 (preparing the land for the new zoo) since signing our contract three-and-a-half months ago, and had started bringing animals up that we had purchased specifically for the Payson zoo. But two weeks ago, when they told us (of the lease payment increase), their exact words were, 'That's a shame you lost that money.' My attorney has told me differently."

When asked during a telephone interview about Hensley's investment in the property, Brunson answered, "That's part of it, so forget it," and hung up.

The two-acre zoo which opened two-and-a-half miles east of Star Valley in January of 1979, but closed down last year due to financial woes was to have been refurbished, repopulated by a whole new assortment of wild animals, and reopened by December as a 100-percent nonprofit organization financed by donors and sponsors.

Most of the former zoo had been torn down, and all new exhibits were in the process of construction.

"It was going to be super-nice," Hensley said. "We had the tiger pen and the lion pen and the reindeer pen just about done; nice, huge habitats with turf ... We already had enough animals to easily do two zoos: a dozen reindeer, seven or eight tigers, lots of lions and leopards and bears, a herd of zebras ... Anyone can go out and see what we've done with the place already. It's totally opposite (of what it was); it's totally unbelievable."

But now, all plans are up in the air.

"We're trying to get things worked out right now through my attorney," Hensley said. "Randy Ferry, the zoo's original owner, came back from Tennessee to deal with these people and get them straightened out or if nothing else, to get them to give us back all the money we've invested.

"If that happens, then we'll just look for another piece of property. At some point, we might go to the Payson Town Hall and see if they have a piece of property on the outskirts of town that they might consider letting us use.

"No matter how everything works out," Hensley said, "it looks like we're going to have to come up with another piece of property."

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