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McClatchy-Tribune  07/08/2014 12:01 AM ET
Private zoo offers a refuge for discarded animals [The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) :: ]

July 08--CAMERON -- Valentine is the daughter of Ugly Betty, a crippled miniature cow who died on Valentine's Day four years ago after having a double cesarean. Stretch is a giraffe who lived in a garage in Ohio and was used for promotional videos and photography before he got too big. And Thelma and Louise were two pregnant zebras that kept jumping their owner's fence.

Those are just some of the stories behind roughly 350 exotic and other animals that Lee Crutchfield, 44, has taken in on his miniature horse farm turned private Aloha Safari Zoo.

Over the past 18 years, the 65-acre farm in Harnett County has evolved into a home for discarded, neglected and donated animals, from a monkey who was found tied up in the woods about a mile from his jailed owner's trailer to camels once used by churches for Nativity scenes. There's Big Lots, a ferret who was found in his namesake store in the town of Spring Lake, and other former pets from alligators to zebras.

To help cover the animals' costs, Crutchfield opened his zoo to the public on weekends in February 2010. It's now open Tuesday through Sunday.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a handful of staff and volunteers fed the animals and groomed the grounds, which includes a miniature horse farm; the zoo and its monkeys, bear, tigers and snake cages; and pastures with dozens of animals, including donkeys, llamas, an emu, an ostrich an African eland, a buffalo, and a pig that fell off of a slaughter truck.

About 60 peacocks (two of which had terrorized a Wake County golf course) wander free on the property, along with about 20 rabbits.

To get to the snake and iguana cages, visitors walk through the small gift shop with a ceiling lined with horse trophies and plaques representing the success of the property's money-making endeavor. The zoo's $8 entrance fee and the gift shop sales cover 50 percent of the zoo's expenses, Crutchfield said. The sale, training, breeding and showing of the about 75 miniature horses on the property covers the rest.

He asked for a monkey

Last week, families and groups flowed onto the property clamoring to pet the goats, the giraffe, a 3-week-old Bengal tiger and a 12-week-old rhesus macaque monkey wearing a dress and a diaper.

The zoo "gives these animals a purpose," said Tiffany Tremont, 47, the zoo and horse farm's general manager.

Visitors said they came to the zoo after hearing about it from someone else or on social media.

"I saw a picture on Facebook of my friend holding a tiger," said Cassie Marcantonio, 20, of Hillsborough, who came to the zoo with a group of about 10 kids that she and a friend babysit.

"They really enjoyed being really close up to the animals," she said.

The story behind the zoo starts with the land. At 19, Lee Crutchfield bought most of the property from his high school principal, who financed the transaction.

"That is what started it," Crutchfield said.

After graduating from high school in 1988, Crutchfield enrolled at a hairstyling academy and commuted to Raleigh.

He soon started making good money. He opened Cut Loose on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh in the 1990s, and later a location in Sanford. He sold both in 1996.

Meanwhile, Crutchfield had built a miniature horse operation. After winning a world championship for a wealthy client in the mid 1990s, Crutchfield was given one wish. He asked for a monkey.

Crutchfield spent two weeks in Las Vegas working with trainers before he came home with a capuchin monkey he named Vegas.

"I very quickly realized just because you can doesn't mean you should," he said.

Vegas wanted to climb on him, guests and walls. He was bottle-raised but still a wild animal. Crutchfield searched for a sanctuary, but was appalled by the conditions he found animals living in, he said.

That's when he decided to turn his farm into a home for discarded animals, he said. He took in animals

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