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BROWN CITY, MI -- In the farms and fields of Brown City, a white tiger, Syrian brown bear and macaque monkey might seem out of place.

But Summer Wind Farms Sanctuary has plenty.

The 140-acre Brown City farm has nine tigers, a coyote, a handful of bears, a few monkeys, a bobcat, plus some more traditional animals, like alpaca and foxes.

The animals are discarded pets, old mascots for high schools and professional sports teams, movie extras past their prime, jungle cats that grew too large to be used as a hook for overpriced photo ops, or old roadside attractions that attacked people who came too close, too often.

The animals also are the subject of a lawsuit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

PETA has filed a lawsuit against the USDA alleging the agency "rubber stamps" exhibitors when they ask for a renewal of their license.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in North Carolina, names Summer Wind Farms Sanctuary in Brown City as a prime example of a sanctuary that is not in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, but routinely gets its license renewed.

Summer Wind received 98 citations from the USDA in 2014, 80 of which were repeat citations, yet the sanctuary had its license renewed at the end of the year.

"It's a hell-hole for animals," said Jenni James, a lawyer for PETA. "We encourage people who care for animals to stay away from places like Summer Wind."

But the 25-year proprietor of the farm said he and his volunteers treat the animals humanely. And the animals often arrive to the farm old, sick, used and abused by their prior owners.

"They (prior owners) take these animals and use them for a short period of time to make money and then they dump them," said Chuck Vanneste, chief executive officer of the sanctuary.

"I think PETA's just trying to cause trouble to get publicity. The more publicity they get the more people will donate to them, but they do little to actually help animals."

The sanctuary at 6490 Mowerson Road was started about 25 years ago and has become home to dozens of discarded animals, about 50 of which are under the jurisdiction of the USDA.

Vanneste said school groups and animal lovers pay $8 to $10 per person for guided tours of the sanctuary.

"There was no place for these exotics to go," Vanneste said, of the sanctuary's start 25 years ago. "It was something we never intended to do. It was hobby that got out of hand."

According to USDA inspections, Summer Wind's 98 citations included ones for:

•Water that was frozen, or had some green algae.

•Inadequate bedding in extreme cold.

•Failure to detect, report or treat painful ailments.

•Too few trained staff members.

•Inadequate enclosures.

•Moldy produce and rotten meat in the food preparation area.

•Excessive feces accumulated in enclosures.

Vanneste said many of the citations are minor and do not relate to the animals, but conditions in the facility's workshop.

He said other citations are a result of more frequent inspections, animals that are old and sick because of past ownership, frequent turnover in volunteers, and constantly changing, exacting standards.

"(The inspector) wants me cleaner than the grocery store on my produce," Vanneste said.

"These animals are old, they have health problems. ... But we don't believe in euthanization unless it is absolutely necessary."

James said PETA offered to find suitable sanctuaries for the Brown City animals. Vanneste said he "wouldn't give PETA a dog" because he believes they euthanize too many animals.

Vanneste's license was suspended for three months and he was fined $500 in 2012. The USDA order cites violations from 2006 to 2010, many similar to those cited in 2014, as cause for the suspension.

But Vanneste said a large reason for the suspension stemmed from a 2006 violation when, during an interview with FOX 2 news in Detroit, a reporter was allowed to feed a tiger by hand through its enclosure.

Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist for the USDA, said the Brown City farm currently is under investigation by the USDA.

But the Animal Welfare Act requires the federal agency to renew a license if the exhibitor signs a form saying it is in compliance with the act, Espinosa said.

Even if the USDA has previous evidence to the contrary.

"We do our inspections one day but the day that they sign their renewal form is not necessarily the day of their inspection so they could be in compliance," Espinosa said.

James believes the USDA can deny a renewal if it has prior evidence a site is violating the Animal Welfare Act.

"We don't think that the USDA's reading of the statute is correct," James said.

"It's unfortunate that they read their own statutes in a way that makes more work for them and keeps animals languishing in cages for decades."

In its suit, PETA asks the court to find the USDA's reading of the statue as "arbitrary," "capricious," and not in compliance with law. The agency also asks the court to set aside the license renewal for Summer Wind.

James said PETA has filed similar lawsuits against the USDA in the past, but this is the first time the activist group has named more than one facility in its complaint.

Also named in the suit are The Mobile Zoo in Wilmer, Alabama; Henry Hampton, who exhibits at Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville, North Carolina; The Farm at Walnut Creek in Sugarcreek, Ohio; the Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland, Marysland; and Michael Tood, who has a traveling tiger exhibition in Kaufman, Texas.

Contact Beth LeBlanc at 810-989-6259, eleblanc@gannett.com, or on Twitter @THBethLeBlanc.

If You Go

Summer Wind Farms Santuary Benefit

•A benefit to support Summer Wind Farms Sanctuary is noon to dark Sept. 19 at the sanctuary, 6490 Mowerson Road, Brown City.

•Admission is $10 per person. Children under 5 are free.

•For more information on the sanctuary or the benefit, visit www.swfsanctuary.org or call (810) 378-4991.

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