A judge's recent decision may force a controversial Dakota County petting zoo to become far less feral.
The yearslong battle between Eureka Township and Fur-Ever Wild, a "fur farm" featuring exotic animals such as wolves, bobcats and foxes, was resolved — for now — when District Judge Karen Asphaug ruled last week that its owner could keep one wolf rather than the dozen-plus that owner Teresa Petter admits to having.
Asphaug's order allows Petter to continue exhibiting animals, including certain exotic species allowed under state law to be kept by fur farms, such as foxes. However, the facility must cap its wolf population at one, the number that district court found that Petter had in 2006, soon after the township enacted its exotic species ordinance.
Erik Hansen, one of Petter's attorneys, said he didn't believe there was adequate evidence that Petter had just one wolf at the time.
"The one wolf piece isn't really based on anything and that's kind of a problem for the underlying court order," Hansen said. He declined to say whether Petter would appeal.
Donovan Palmquist, a member of the Eureka Township board of supervisors, expects the two-year-old legal battle to continue.
"If the appeals court doesn't take it, then I would call it a victory for the township," Palmquist said. "But then you have to go ahead and enforce it and that's a whole other deal."
Petter said that she isn't relinquishing any animals. "No matter what happens with the zoning issue, they're still my animals."
She blamed the controversy on animal rights activists who she alleges have ties to Eureka Township. She says they spread lies that she mistreats animals.
Petter said township officials told her for years that her business was legal, then after she invested "almost a million dollars," they told her it wasn't.
The matter came to a head Sept. 5 when the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued its opinion in a lawsuit the township filed against Petter in July 2015. The township alleged that Petter violated its zoning laws by keeping exotic animals, running a petting zoo and operating a pelting business.
After a trial, the district court found that the township's ordinance was invalid because it conflicts with a state statute. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The appellate court concluded, however, that the lower court went too far in prohibiting Petter from showing her animals and conducting certain retail sales on the property. Because she was exhibiting animals in 2003 — before township prohibited it — she was protected by a state law grandfathering that activity.
'A huge powder keg'
Petter, both an animal lover and a hunter, said she took in her first wolf at age 18 when its owner couldn't care for it. She said she made it her mission to educate people about animals, including the sometimes brutal reality of how they live, breed and die.
"I originally was here to tell people the truth, not to sugarcoat things," Petter said. "People aren't going to know what they're saving unless they see these animals."
Fur-Ever Wild is run largely by volunteers. On the weekends, they socialize the animals — 2015 USDA inspection records counted 136 in all.
While the business doesn't charge admission anymore, visitors pay for the food volunteers give to animals and for the chance to cuddle wolf pups, a concept Petter calls "pet-n-plays."
Members of a Facebook page called "Opponents of Fur-Ever Wild" object to its status as a fur farm.
The group displays a petition to shut down Fur-Ever Wild, as well as a 2012 court deposition in which Petter talks about skinning animals — including wolves — to sell their pelts.
"I pelted two wolves last night," the deposition reads. "There will be 25 within the next three weeks."
Petter posted on her own Facebook page that she pelts only animals that die naturally.
She said she's spent more than $200,000 on lawsuits and had to sell 40 acres in December to pay for attorneys.
"I'm handling it, but it's not easy," Petter said.
Palmquist called Fur-Ever Wild a "huge powder keg" in the township.
"There's a whole lot of people who are against it, which I totally understand," he said. "From the other standpoint, she has the right to make a living."