Collins zoo owner wants animals back or state to pay up

Published 1:22 pm Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Gus White wants his animals back — every snake, skunk, alligator, bobcat, raccoon and turtle that was seized by state wildlife officials six years ago.

White is the owner of Collins Zoo, a small roadside attraction featuring exotic animals on U.S. 49.

He claims the state had no right to seize nine alligator snapping turtles, two speckled king snakes, one eastern diamondback rattlesnake, five red-eared slider turtles, 27 box turtles, two river cooter turtles, eight bobcats, three skunks, 10 alligators and two raccoons.

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The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks officials seized some of the zoo animals in 2001.

“You would think bin Laden was in here the way they emerged on us,” Betty White said.

Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks spokesman Jim Walker said the agency, “Took possession of animals that were native to Mississippi — in violation of a public notice.

Gus White was arrested and charged with 68 counts of illegally possessing animals. The Whites have since spent countless hours in courtrooms trying to find out what happened to their animals. They have never been returned.

“They’re not just animals. They’re part of the family,” Betty White said.

The Whites, who opened the Collins Zoo in 1988, have managed to keep its doors open for visitors. Talking birds still greet tourists and snakes slither around in glass tanks.

On March 20, 2002, former Covington County Justice Court Judge Cecil Perkins ordered that all the Whites’ animals and reptiles the state seized be returned within 10 days.

It didn’t happen.

On Dec. 30, 2003, another justice court judge, George Thomas Sullivan, ordered the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks be held in civil contempt. That judge ordered the state to reimburse White $60,725 for the animals.

On May 26, 2006, Circuit Court Judge Bob Evans issued a writ of prohibition against the Covington County justice court decision.

Reggie Blackledge, White’s attorney, said the decision puts White’s battle back in justice court and ends White’s contempt action against the state.

Now White thinks he has no choice but to file civil action against the state if he wants to collect the $60,725.

Taylorsville veterinarian Lisa Ainsworth has worked with the Whites and their animals for 13 years.

She said she is impressed with what she sees during visits.

“The animals are extremely well cared for,” Ainsworth said. “They look absolutely gorgeous.”