Wildlife petting zoo turns furrier slaughterhouse when nobody's watching

Breed, exhibit, kill, repeat.

Breed, exhibit, kill, repeat.

In springtime, the wind around Eureka Township blows south-southeast from field to farm to forest. It moves along the Vermillion River, sifting through trees, home to woodpeckers, eagles, and owls. It rides the undulating terrain where foxes, badgers, and coyotes stamp tracks in the season's fresh mud.

About 1,500 people live in this bucolic, 36-square-mile township below Farmington and Lakeville on the far southern end of the Twin Cities metro.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bill Funk and his wife, Barb, discovered this beatitude four years ago. The couple traded in a slice of suburbia in Eagan for a foreclosure on a serene cul-de-sac.

"We loved the big trees, the quiet out here," says Bill, who lives in the nine-home neighborhood called Jersey Court.

Old-growth trees outnumber people about 1,000 to one here. The houses don't have lots, they have acreages. There's zero noise save for a woodpecker drilling somewhere down the hill at the end of the street that leads to Rice Lake. If only they could do something about that smell.

"If the breeze is going back and forth, coming from the south or southeast, the stench is pretty steady," says Bill. "Best way to describe it is between the rotting flesh of a dead animal and a landfill."

Owner Terri Petter promotes Fur-Ever Wild as an outdoor educational center whose charges are treated like family.

Owner Terri Petter promotes Fur-Ever Wild as an outdoor educational center whose charges are treated like family.

The empty nesters' homestead sits at the far end of Jersey Court. It shares a fence line with a much larger property, a 57-acre habitat of pasture, wetland, and junkyard. There's an orphaned jet ski, a semi trailer doubling as a storage shed, and rusting truck axles on the other side of the high metal fence. Beyond the trash, there sits a huddle of metal enclosures, some cages, some more like stockades.

Bill climbs a tree. He points to the spot from which the stink emanates. The compost pit, obscured by an earthen berm, brims with road-kill leftovers and pig carcasses, Bill reports.

The lot belongs to Terri Petter. The 41-year-old runs Fur-Ever Wild, an "outdoor educational center" exhibiting cougars, bobcats, lynx, foxes, and dozens of other furry creatures.

The star attraction is the wolves. Every year come spring and continuing through Christmas, dozens of these captive predators lure carloads of families and photographers. The guests pay good money to see the wolves up close and take photos of the babies. They want to experience a bit of the wild, held here in the stillness of southern Minnesota.

A different kind of howl

Car tires crunch an ascending gravel driveway leading to Fur-Ever Wild. Deer and ponies graze in the adjacent field. "Feed the Whitetails — $5," a sign advertises.

It's mid-April, the day after Fur-Ever Wild's 2016 grand reopening.

"Baby season...," the Facebook page had advertised. "Listen to the wolves howl, sit by a bonfire. Shop our trappers cabin. It's not just fun and relaxing. It's educational too."

The Fur-Ever Wild ranch, as it's called, sits atop a knoll. Military patrons are always granted free admission, otherwise a ticket costs $7.50 for adults and $5 for kids. For those looking to invest more in the experience, animal sponsorships begin at $25. Old-fashioned donations are always welcome; they suggest blankets, carrots, and big garbage bags.

Behind a serrated wooden fence that resembles a frontier fort, a handful of workers tend to animals looking out at the world through steel fencing.

The ranch's animal exhibit begins with three foxes. They lie still in their cages, moving only their eyes to watch the onlookers pass.

Chickens peck a circular dirt path that winds past two massive pens. Each houses a dozen wolves. Like the foxes, most are lounging as patrons approach. At the bottom of the slope inside the second wolf area, a half-eaten cow carcass rots. She died of bloat at a local farm; her owner, needing a place to dump the body, knew the dead cow would be put to good use at Fur-Ever Wild.

A calf on the loose excites five cougars and wolves in a third pen. Then the path curls past a gift shop toward a belly-up possum fighting the urge to nap. A worker on break stands nearby, multitasking. She's engrossed in a conversation on her cell phone, alternating pulls from a Hi-C juice box and a 100-sized cigarette.

At last, the "baby barn," housed in a large shed, contains most of the action. Inside, a giddy mom — "We drive all the way from Rogers for this!" — sits on the straw-covered floor, recording her daughter trying to coax two tiny foxes onto her lap. If she fails, no problem. Twenty more bucks reserves the next 20 minutes.

Back in the Funks' backyard, maybe a hundred yards over the fence from the wolves, Bill, a career engineer by trade, strains to understand the draw.

Minnesota DNR’s most recent inspection showed Fur-Ever Wild housed 143 animals, including 62 wolves.

Minnesota DNR’s most recent inspection showed Fur-Ever Wild housed 143 animals, including 62 wolves.

"Fur-Ever Wild isn't what Terri sells to the public," he says. "You can hear it if you listen to her wolves. I've heard wolves howl in the wild. I can tell you Terri's wolves don't make the same sound.

"There's a different tone to it. These wolves, they're sad."

She wolf

Petter first came to Eureka in 1995 with a lone wolf in tow.

She was a local by way of Rosemount High, some 14 miles to the north. She bought 40 acres a stone's throw from the Vermillion River, with a Civil War-era farmhouse out front and a cluster of ag buildings in the back.

Petter started acquiring animals the same year she moved in — foxes, bobcats, lynx, wolves, and raccoons. She purchased a second nearby property in 2001, the 57-acre expanse where Fur-Ever Wild currently sits.

There, she let her wilder charges share the land: Cougars, foxes, bobcats, porcupines, skunks, and wolves cohabitated with horses, pigs, and goats.

Cougars are among the prohibited animals classified as “exotic” by a Eureka Township ordinance.

Cougars are among the prohibited animals classified as “exotic” by a Eureka Township ordinance.

Tim Warner volunteered at Fur-Ever Wild beginning in 2006. His chores included fixing equipment, building enclosures, and feeding the village of animals kept on the property, which Warner estimates at the time numbered a few dozen.

One awful frigid day stands out in his memory. Petter had called, asking him to feed and check on the animals. She said she'd already done the same earlier in the morning, which was about three hours before Warner arrived at the ranch.

"I walked into where they were kept and there was a dead skunk, an albino skunk. His name was 'Edgar' named after Edgar Winter. [There were] two dead porcupines, and a lynx that was dead," says Warner. "We're not talking like they just died. They were frozen stiff, their bodies kind of deflated as if they hadn't been checked on for days.

"The ones still alive were freezing and ravenous like they hadn't been fed in days. When I called Terri, she swore she'd checked on them that morning and acted like it was no big deal."

What should I do about the dead animals? Warner asked Petter.

"Just leave 'em," Warner recalls her saying. "We'll take care of it."

Another incident involving a young male wolf is almost too difficult for Warner to talk about. It occurred during mating season circa 2009. A year-old sire was to mate with a female wolf; afterward, his erection wouldn't retract.

Petter never contacted a vet, according to Warner, who says, "His penis basically got infected. I don't know if it was gangrene or what exactly."

The animal died two weeks later.

"She just basically let him suffer and die with his penis sticking out," he says. "I remember going to feed him and he'd just be laying there. I wish I could remember his name, but I'll never forget that wolf as long as I live."

Warner says things got ugly when he quit the ranch. Petter barked at volunteers like they were her serfs, he says. When Warner put in his notice, Petter said good riddance. There's always a ton of people offering to volunteer, she boasted.

Petter began opening up her collection of animals to the public as a hobby in 2002. In 2011, she began giving "official tours" at Fur-Ever Wild.

Fur-Ever Wild's season begins with springtime pay-to-pets, continues with weekend hours through summer and a "Howl-O-Ween Haunt" in October, and is capped off by Christmas lights of the "Winter Wonderland." Sprinkled in between are photography workshops where $175 reservations facilitate Kodak moments with wolf pups.

Reservations aren't required for the fox kit pet-n-plays, but they do come strongly recommended.

"So the kits have time to sleep, eat, and just relax," the ranch's Facebook page explains. "They get so excited when they get to play with people."

The face of Fur-Ever Wild was that of a kid-friendly wildlife center. Her real business was a much different animal.

The fur flies

Around the same time Petter began inviting the public into her wildlife exhibit, the stench blowing through Jersey Court got stronger.

Then, a letter came in the mail. Petter wanted to build a new barn, said the notice from the township. Her previous one had burned down the past November.

"Up until we got that letter and started doing some research, we didn't really have much of an idea as to what was going on over there," says resident Fritz Frana. "It was after the letter from the township we started opening our eyes."

According to state and federal licensing and inspections paperwork, minutes from township meetings, and court records, both Petter and her boyfriend, Daniel Storlie, acknowledge that since circa 2001 they've been furriers. The couple raises, slaughters, and harvests animals for the pelts. They also sell leftover parts like teeth and paws.

"Since approximately 2001," reads an affidavit signed by Petter in December 2015, "I have been using the [property where Fur-Ever Wild is located] as a fur farm... engaged in breeding, raising, producing, and marketing fur-bearing animals or the products of fur-bearing animals."

Breed for spring, exhibit over summer and fall, pelt come winter, repeat.

Which animals are raised for fur? a lawyer asked in 2012.

"They all are," she said. "Except for the pigs.... And the goats. Those are raised for meat.... And the horses are raised for meat, but we — this is going to sound horrible. We also sell the horses to taxidermists."

Do any animals die of natural causes? she was asked.

"It depends on the fur market," Petter replied. "[This] year there is a lot of wolves.... I pelted two wolves last night.... And there is another two going tonight.... There will be 25 within the next three weeks — two weeks."

Wolves not only became Petter's main attraction at the ranch, they remain the furrier's prized commodity. As such, she keeps them alive until winter, when their coats are "in prime."

"You breed for size," said Petter, in a deposition. "If you measure [the pelts] from the nose to the beginning of the tail, the six-footers and above are the most valuable. You almost get double the price."

Petter would guess her wolves numbered "probably 15" in 2007. Five years later, the pack consisted of "about 49," court papers show. However, Petter was quick to point out that her inventory fluctuated depending on the time of year. Her supply ran high post-breeding season, while winter pelting made those numbers nosedive.

From wolves to varmints, Petter and Storlie pelt everything cursed with a fur coat.

Do you pelt the prairie dogs? a lawyer queried.

"As soon as I have babies, I will," Petter said.

"And do you pelt the woodchucks?" he continued.

Yes, some, she said, the others are sold live.

The couple pelted 1,500 foxes in 2007, Storlie told the Eureka Town Board the following year.

What had begun as one wolf in 1995 had boomed to a sizable pelting operation. According to the most recent Minnesota Department of Natural Resources licensing documents, the property post-pelting housed 143 animals, including seven bobcats, nine cougars, and 62 wolves.

Says former volunteer Tim Warner, "Terri gets [the animals] because it makes her feel like a celebrity when people seek her out to see [them].

"Then she realized there was money to be made selling fur. She could breed a new batch every year and tell the public to come see them... then kill them for their coats after the last visitors were there around the holidays. It's fucked up."

Dog in a corner

The more the neighbors learned about Fur-Ever Wild, the more unnerved they became. Petter's animals, especially the cougars and wolves, were at the top of the list of worries. If they should escape, as a few of Storlie's longhorn steers had done years prior, they had the power to do serious damage. The regular stink in the air ranked second as both a health concern and quality of life concern.

"You have the rats feeding off the compost pile and running into the neighborhood," says Bill Funk. "You can also have 40 wolves all howling at the same time, which is something to hear, I must say. I have pictures of Terri's bobcat that gets out and it's standing beside my shed."

The residents shared their fears and vexation with local officials. But they say members of the Eureka Township Board defended the operation: Petter possessed the requisite state and federal credentials to operate a fur farm, they said. And nothing in local law prohibited her from moonlighting as an animal exhibitor.

Neighbors Funk, Ralph Fredlund, and the Franas shot back: What about the existing "Exotic Animals" ordinance, written into law in 2005, that forbids owning or keeping wolves, cougars, and bobcats within Eureka limits?

They were told the state and federal licenses Petter had obtained superseded local law. "There was nothing we could do," Mary Frana says. "Needless to say, we were deflated."

Julie Larson wasn't buying the explanations from officials. Larson's family farm predates Eureka's 1858 founding. Larson declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to documents and interviews with other residents, she didn't believe locals were powerless to stop Petter. So she started digging.

Two facts jumped out at her. First, maintaining that Petter was in an agricultural business by virtue of running a fur farm only applied if she was raising animals like foxes, fisher, and mink. Not protected under this rule were the breeding, raising, and pelting of animals defined as "exotic."

And wolves, cougars, and bobcats fit that definition, according to Minnesota law.

Second, Larson pointed out, the local authorities — not state or federal — were on the hook to enforce the law, regardless of what paperwork Petter had from higher governments.

Larson lodged an official complaint in December 2011.

News of Larson's complaint reached Jersey Court fast. The neighbors would ultimately use it as the fulcrum to launch a court battle in which they demanded Eureka uphold and enforce its exotic animal laws. That fight continues to this day.

Petter didn't take kindly to a lawsuit. As she sees it, her Eureka Township neighbors are trying to put Fur-Ever Wild out of business. She said as much in a three-page letter, distributed mid-summer three years ago to every front stoop on the cul-de-sac.

"When you back a dog in a corner and keep slapping him in the face," her letter began, "after a while they have to defend themselves. I've been pushed long enough."

Take your pick, Petter said: fur-bearing animals to exhibit and pelt or "a bigger pig farm," adding, "I wouldn't care how much of a S&^% hole this place becomes."

Her words were a declaration of war. She was done playing nice, she said, because "that doesn't seem to work." Besides, if her neighbors wanted a legal fight, she'd just breed more animals to pay the bills.

"Remember the animals aren't going anywhere," the letter concluded. "You make the call on what you think is best, but the more time and energy I waste on this lawsuit, the more animals I need to breed.... The choice is up to you."

A State Court of Appeals last spring ruled against Petter, ordering Eureka Township to enforce its exotic animals ordinance and force Petter to get rid of the wolves, cougars, and bobcats, and any others under the prohibited umbrella.

But that won't be happening anytime soon. Petter has counter-sued, and the trial, originally scheduled for May, has been postponed until June 14.

Whatever the court decides, it doesn't appear Petter will go peacefully.

"No one will take these animals as long as I breathe," reads a Petter email from November and provided to City Pages by a former Fur-Ever Wild visitor. "I will die in a pile of brass before anyone takes my animals."

Minneapolis resident Debbie Pierce and Michelle Valadez of Lakeville toured Fur-Ever Wild last April. The women had read the internet rumors, but wanted to see the ranch firsthand.

A teenage volunteer played guide. Both recall a cougar pacing incessantly, a pregnant wolf crying and whining for the better part of an hour, and other animals lying down, waiting for people to buy hotdogs and dispense them through a PVC pipe into their enclosures.

"She kept talking about how healthy her wolves are, much healthier than in the wild, because, she said, they take such good care of them and they're loved so much," Valadez says. "That's not what I saw. They were all dirty and scruffy. Every animal was mopey, lethargic."

Pierce still tears up when asked to describe the visit.

"It's the dishonesty about the whole thing that's most disgusting to me," she says. "What kind of person raises animals, pets them, gives them names, then turns around and can look at them when she's slaughtering them?"

Closing time

If the outcome of the trial doesn't put Fur-Ever Wild out of business, the mounting legal fees just might.

Petter started a Go Fund Me page in February of this year to cover her "legal fees for hunting education." The page has a $15,000 goal to defend Fur-Ever Wild in court because "We have been attacked by animal rights activists and a few neighbors to try to shut us down."

A second page was started the same day. Its creator, "Trigger Petter," asked for $15,000 for an outdoor educational center that's been victimized by "lies and rumors." Donations would support Fur-Ever Wild's work of hosting events such as those for "youth and disabled [vets]."

Petter is also looking to offload some real estate. In early 2015, she purchased a 17-acre tract in Deadwood, South Dakota, for a second Fur-Ever Wild outpost. She opened the exhibit to the public around Memorial Day.

The expansion project didn't last the summer. First, the state Animal Industry Board said Petter's patrons weren't allowed to pet baby animals. The town then rushed to approve a restrictive animal ordinance. One of the provisions capped her number of animals at 12.

She put the Deadwood property up for sale last August, and it remains listed. But officials also say Petter is in the process of reapplying for the South Dakota license that would allow her to have wolves and other exotics on site — presumably with an eye toward reopening the Deadwood site.

The South Dakota locals who opposed Fur-Ever Wild opening a local outpost a year ago "fear Petter is making plans to move animals from her Minnesota-based attraction, if she loses a pending lawsuit there that could force her to close," reported the Rapid City Journal last month.

Petter didn't respond to repeated email and phone messages seeking comment. She did have something to say when the Animal Legal Defense Fund threatened legal action. Stop killing wolves immediately, the group ordered, as it's in violation of federal law. Her wolves, she countered in a January 19 affidavit, are actually "wolf-dog hybrids."

As a trial looms, Petter has also put up for sale her original 40 acres in Eureka Township.

"This property has the gorgeous countryside and easy freeway access," an online listing reads. "The best of both worlds."