SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Delmont, a town of 234 people 40 miles south of Mitchell, is home to a private menagerie of wild animals that includes five Siberian tigers, a leopard and a mountain lion.
The big cats' owner, who could not be reached for comment, is one of the largest collectors of exotic animals in South Dakota. He is one of a few dozen people in the state licensed to keep what are formally known as "captive nondomestic mammals."
Most of the nonresident animals listed in the South Dakota Animal Industry Board's licensing database are zoo animals or elk and deer raised on private ranches.
But the list also includes more exotic pets: bobcats in White River, Piedmont and Monroe; wolves in Keystone and Whitewood; a black bear in Beresford.
Lori Welbig, who lives in the Sioux Falls area, keeps a half-dozen silver foxes in a large outdoor pen. She has raised everything from elk to badgers to antelope, but foxes always have been her favorite.
"You do it because you love the animal and you want to — you're doing it to preserve the species," she said. "It should never be for personal gain. ... It's not for everyone."
Owners say keeping an exotic animal is a fascinating but challenging endeavor.
Travel is difficult because many kennels won't take wild animals. Arranging for veterinary care can be a problem. The animals are more costly, in general, and there are additional licensing and inspection requirements.
Anyone who wants to bring a captive nonresident mammal into South Dakota has to get a permit from Dustin Oedekoven, the state veterinarian, and submit to annual inspections.
"One of the requirements of being permitted ... is that our staff, usually a veterinarian, ensures that the facilities where that animal is going to be housed are sufficient to provide for public safety," Oedekoven said.
To help keep track of what's where, licensees must submit annual inventories of their animals and report deaths and escapes immediately.
Oedekoven said the number of permits his office issues each year has been declining, mostly a reflection of the yearslong contraction of the deer-ranching industry. But the number and type of exotic species hasn't changed all that much.
"I always am intrigued when someone gets a monkey," he said. "Maybe it's just a personal thing for me, but I just can't imagine."
As it turns out, Gary and Trisa Reber of rural Gregory and their 16-year-old daughter, Kelsey, are the only family in South Dakota licensed to keep a monkey. Two, in fact: Kami and Riko, both black-capped capuchins.
"It's like having a baby for life," Gary Reber said. "They're just part of the family."
Kami and Riko have a sizable indoor-outdoor cage with swings, ropes and toys.
They're leashed and diapered when they come inside — Trisa Reber reports that, contrary to stereotype, neither flings poo — and sometimes they sleep with the Rebers.
"They never quit learning. Their brains are constantly going," Gary Reber said. "They watch everything you do and try to imitate it, so you have to be careful what you do."
Both have learned to open pop bottles and turn lights on and off. Once, after a key to the padlock on the monkeys' cage went missing, the family discovered that Kami had hidden it in her diaper.
"They're very loving, but you also have to be very dedicated," Trisa Reber said. "They're not for everybody."
Oedekoven echoed this.
"We visit with a number of people who initially think that (owning an exotic pet) would be fun," he said. "And certainly there is a draw to that. However, careful research into the feeding and housing and health care of some of these animals will show that it's a very expensive, labor-intensive process. ... Those little baby tigers grow up quickly and can become a problem."
When that happens, many of these animals end up at the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary near Spearfish, which now has 367 animals, volunteer Lanny Erdman said in an email.
"We would love it if these animals could be returned to their wild homes, but because they were socialized and raised with people, they would not have the behaviors necessary to be fully wild," she wrote. "They have never been taught to seek food by their animal parents, and their fear of people has been completely eliminated. They are both too wild to be tame, and too tame to be wild."
For 15 years, David and Carla Knecht have run Tip Top Camel and Reindeer Ranch near Bowdle. They no longer have camels — too much work, Carla Knecht says — though they've kept on a herd of llamas and some miniature donkeys. But the main draw is the reindeer.
Starting around the second week of November, the Knechts and their dozen reindeer travel on weekends to venues around the West and Midwest and set up holiday displays. (Ever visited the reindeer exhibit at Lewis Drug in Sioux Falls? Then you've seen the Knecht reindeer.)
The Knechts are booked a year in advance, so good luck getting them to your office Christmas party.
"We don't have kids, and both kids and adults really seem to enjoy the animals," Carla Knecht said. "To us, it's kind of an everyday thing. But, boy, it's a lot of fun for them."
A few license-holders did not return messages for comment; others declined to speak on record because they didn't want their neighbors to know about their exotic pets, or because they were afraid of being targeted by animal activists. Most, however, were proud of their unusual pets.
Retiree Jerry Swanson keeps a pair of full-blooded wolves at Wolf Camp, his campground in the Black Hills.
Swanson bottle-fed them from blind, deaf pups bought from a franchisor in Idaho for $30,000. The two, both sterilized, are mates — the male is a 145-pound timber wolf, black and silver in color, and the female is a white, 125-pound arctic wolf.
Akia and Wakan Tanka each eat about eight pounds of meat every other day — deer, elk, buffalo, chicken, turkey, beef — making them very expensive pets, Swanson said.
They roam a 100-by-70-foot pen ringed by a 13-foot-tall chain-link fence with buried wire mesh to prevent a tunnel escape. They like to dig, to play with Swanson's family and his dachshund and, most of all, to howl. (The camp is surrounded by Forest Service land, so there are few neighbors to annoy.)
Because the wolves are seventh-generation captives, they've lost their hunting instincts; deer and turkeys can walk by the pen and not elicit so much as a growl. Still, they're fascinating to observe, Swanson said.
"I spend hours out there in the winter sitting there watching them," he said. "They're smarter than most people I know. They can problem-solve, they can rationalize ... they're exceptional."
Half an hour away, Rexanne Royall of Hot Springs keeps two skunks (both descented), an arctic fox and a muntjac, or barking deer, a curious creature native to southern Asia that stands about a foot high.
But that's not all. In addition to cats and dogs, Royall oversees a herd that includes African porcupines, raccoons, pygmy hedgehogs, a kinkajou, coatimundis, Egyptian spiny mice and Patagonian cavies.
"We have just a little bit of everything," she said.
A lifelong animal lover, Royall began raising exotic species after getting a wallaby.
"I wouldn't recommend exotics for everyone," she said. "Everyone thinks they're cute and all, but you have to do your research. They're not just dogs. They have to be cared for specially."
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com