Animals at THIS Petting Zoo ‘Do Little’ Except Suffer


5 min read

As exclusively reported by the Tacoma News Tribune, PETA obtained and reviewed documents revealing that animals have died and that others have suffered on the watch of Donald Miller, the former owner of Debbie Dolittle’s Indoor Petting Zoo in Tacoma, Washington.

Pierce County Animal Control documented animal deaths and apparent cruelty to animals during a yearslong investigation into the facility, prompted by a PETA complaint over the death of a 1-year-old sloth named Malia. The investigation documented the deaths of 17 mostly young animals as well as the following:

  • Miller and others improperly cared for a sloth named Malia and other animals.
  • Miller failed to feed or keep warm two “bottle baby” otters, who died shortly after they were transported from Texas in January 2019.
  • He arranged for a camel to be euthanized by a veterinarian who had lost his license.
  • He apparently sought flesh-eating beetles before the death of a sick tortoise, allegedly aiming to keep the animal’s shell for “an art project.”

Investigators also alleged that Miller had tampered with evidence to conceal misconduct and that two former veterinarians at the facility had quit after about a year due to concerns over animal care (or, apparently, a lack thereof).

Based on these reported findings, animal control officials recommended 19 criminal charges against Miller as well as charges against his associates, including felony first-degree cruelty to animals for the deaths of over a dozen animals—but the county’s prosecuting attorney’s office has yet to pursue charges against Miller and his then-employees.

A PETA Tip, an Investigation, and a Raid

In October 2019, young Malia died after falling from a climbing structure. A necropsy determined that the cause of death was “blunt force trauma to the head, most likely resulting from the fall” and that Malia had been suffering from “severe emaciation, indications of chronic stress, and older bruising to the body wall that was not associated with the current trauma.” After PETA alerted animal control officials to the incident, they opened an investigation into the facility, during which they seized five animals, including two sloths, two armadillos, and a binturong (bearcat).

Animal Deaths, Human Injuries—Debbie Dolittle’s Petting Zoo Is an Experience No One Wants
Sloths feel at home in rainforest canopies and in the water—not at roadside zoos. This baby sloth should’ve been free to cling to her mother—something that sloths in nature do for up to nine months—but was instead being groped by multiple humans while on display in the arms of a Debbie Dolittle’s staffer.

A Slap on the Wrist

While animal control’s probe continued, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined the sleazy operation a measly $7,500 for the deaths of Malia and a tamandua (a type of anteater) as well as the injuries of more than six dozen humans. According to the USDA penalty notification, Debbie Dolittle’s acquired the tamandua and never quarantined him, acclimated him to his new environment, or had him examined by a veterinarian. He suffered from weight loss and was found dead just three weeks after arriving.

The notification also noted that Debbie Dolittle’s had failed to secure a metal ramp adequately in an enclosure housing fennec foxes, one of whom consequently was injured so severely that her leg had to be amputated. And at least 79 members of the public were injured during interactions with animals, including a guest who was bitten and left bloody by an otter.

two otters at Debbie Dolittle’s Petting Zoo
Petting zoos like Debbie Dolittle’s Animal Experience severely restrict otters’ freedom of movement, routinely break up their families and other tightly knit social groups, and do little to inform visitors about these complex and intelligent animals’ needs and natural behavior.

About six months after the USDA fined Miller—who, according to records uncovered by Pierce County Animal Control, bragged about making an average of over $100,000 a month from his operation—the agency issued him a new exhibitor’s license. In 2021, Miller sold the business to longtime employee Malisa Cloud—whom Pierce County Animal Control also recommended charges against—and she sold it in 2023 to Richard Shanebrook, who maintained close ties to Miller and his animal encounter operation.

Miller and Debbie Dolittle’s continued to rack up citations for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including in March 2024, when the USDA cited Miller for confining two wolves to an enclosure full of standing water and mud, without any dry areas. And in February and April 2024, Debbie Dolittle’s current owner was cited for multiple animal welfare issues by the USDA, including for failing to provide an adequate pool for a solitary penguin.

Miller’s Long History of Failing Animals

This latest probe wasn’t Miller’s first run-in with Pierce County Animal Control. In 2011, officials were called to a property where Miller operated a “goat for hire” business. They discovered around 75 dead animals, including goats and birds, in bags on the property.

Miller also has a history of doing business with Jason Clay, another seedy animal exhibitor who, in December 2023, pleaded guilty to violating the federal Endangered Species Act in relation to the illegal transport of a juvenile chimpanzee. In January 2019, Miller bought five otters from Clay. Animal control reported that two otters had died, one of whom had been suffering from “rectal prolapse, obtundation, hypothermia, and dehydration.” Miller obtained other animals from Clay, including a binturong, a warthog, a young giraffe, and two African penguins.

Miller Relinquished His Exhibitor’s License

In April 2024, PETA urged the USDA to terminate Miller’s license over Pierce County’s findings. Less than two weeks later, Miller’s license was canceled. Some of the animals in his care were moved to Debbie Dolittle’s, while he took others, including a penguin and a sloth, to a roadside zoo in Michigan.

Will Charges Be Filed?

Both PETA and Pierce County Animal Control have called for charges against Miller, but the clock is ticking. The statute of limitations has expired on 14 of Pierce County’s recommended charges, and the five remaining charges will expire within the next year.

What YOU Can Do

Debbie Dolittle’s failed the animals who suffered and died there, but it’s not too late to help others. You can do your part by refusing to visit this sordid facility and all others that exploit animals for profit. Doing so is easy: If a facility offers interactions between animals and the public, give it a pass. Don’t be swayed even if one of these places tacks on the word “sanctuary” or “rescue” to its name—it’s a deceptive ploy that many roadside zoos use to dupe unwitting visitors. View our interactive Google Earth presentation with Chrome to see if any of the grimmest spots for animals are located near you …

… and click below to make even more of a difference for animals suffering at cruel tourist traps:



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