A Jackson County officer monkeys around.

Animal Control Freak 

A Jackson County officer monkeys around.

Three years ago, an irresponsible pet owner's loose chimpanzee made the news by attacking a teen-age girl near Erotic City, the sex shop and strip club on East Truman Road. Shortly afterward, Jackson County Animal Control Officer Ray Campfield paid his first visit to Dana Savorelli.

Savorelli's 10-acre property on the outskirts of Greenwood is home to forty monkeys, a family of lemurs, a few llamas, some miniature donkeys, a retired racehorse, an ostrich, four kinkajous and a trio of lizards.

Campfield approached the intercom outside the gate and announced that he was there to take a look around.

But Savorelli, always protective of his animals, prickled at the thought of giving Campfield access to roam his property. Besides, Savorelli knew he had done nothing wrong.

"I told him, 'You're going to need a search warrant,'" Savorelli recalls. Savorelli's wife, Angela, was watching from a window. "[Campfield] had his chest all puffed out, and he was arguing with Dana. I thought, what the heck is going on down there?" Angela says.

Campfield called the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, which dispatched several deputies. After talking with Savorelli, though, the deputies left.

But Campfield vowed he'd be back, Savorelli recalls.

That was the beginning of Savorelli's tortured relationship with Jackson County Animal Control.

As the owner of Midwest Animal Capture Equipment Inc., Savorelli designs and manufactures animal-handling tools used by animal-control officers, zoos and scientists all over the world. British herpetologist Mark O'Shea, who stars in the Animal Planet series Mark O'Shea's Big Adventure, credits Savorelli for creating the Gentle Giant brand snake tongs that allowed him to capture vipers in Sri Lanka while he was shooting a film called Venom. "It wouldn't have been anywhere near safe without his latest development," O'Shea tells the Pitch.

Savorelli bought his rural property in 1996 from friends who bred and sold primates for a living. He intended to do the same, he says, until his conscience kicked in.

"I saw that most people just can't care for monkeys," Savorelli says. And he began to question the ethics of selling living creatures that were so similar to humans. He decided he would sell only a few monkeys a year to carefully screened owners. The proceeds would go toward providing sanctuary for other monkeys.

"A lot of these animals, they get old and they get ornery, and nobody wants them anymore," Savorelli says.

Once, when the Savorellis heard that an eighty-year-old man living in a trailer in rural Michigan had a baboon he couldn't handle, the couple put a large cage in their van and set out to help. "The place was in a wooded area where there were lots of bears," Angela Savorelli says. "The old man's trailer was filthy." In a corner, they saw a box made of wood scraps. A pair of primate eyes stared out from a 6-inch hole.

Dana Savorelli sedated the baboon, opened the box and found the bottom packed with a foot-deep layer of feces. The animal should have weighed about 70 pounds, but the elderly man had reportedly been feeding him jelly doughnuts and cinnamon rolls. At 110 pounds, fat rippled down the baboon's back. When the Savorellis got him home, they found that he wouldn't climb -- which is uncharacteristic for a baboon.

Two years later, "Lonnie" still "dances" back and forth neurotically, but he has dropped 25 pounds and has learned to climb. He allows Dana Savorelli to visit him inside his enclosure, and if his human buddy is shirtless, Lonnie will groom Savorelli's chest and armpit hair.

The Savorellis say the animals are their life. So they're worried about what their conflicts with a Jackson County Animal Control officer could do to Dana's business and to his professional reputation.

The trouble began not long after Campfield's first visit. In August 2000, Campfield frequently drove past the Savorellis' property, according to a log Angela had begun keeping. Then, the Savorellis say, he approached their fence and began snapping pictures of their home and the animals' buildings. Angela wrote in her log that Campfield "hid behind trees" on a neighbor's property. The Savorellis say Campfield would park in their driveway for up to an hour at a time, just watching them.

About six months later, Savorelli learned from the Independence police that there was a warrant for his arrest. Jackson County court records show that he was wanted for "harboring wild or exotic animals without written permission from Jackson County Animal Control." So he turned himself in and spent a few hours in jail before being released on $500 bond.

Savorelli hired a lawyer, who called the county prosecutor's office and explained that Savorelli had a federal permit to keep the animals. United States Department of Agriculture officials had inspected his property, and a local veterinarian -- who also has a contract to do veterinary work for Jackson County Animal Control -- had signed the USDA paperwork on Savorelli's behalf.

Savorelli was never charged.

But Campfield continued to drive by their home, the Savorellis say. And on March 27, 2002, Savorelli received a certified letter notifying him that Campfield planned to perform an "animal safety inspection" on Savorelli's property.

Campfield cited Jackson County codes, which state that "it shall be unlawful for any person to own, harbor or permit at large any exotic or wild animal without the written permission of the animal control officer" and that "such permission shall be given only after a permit has been granted by the State of Missouri."

But the state doesn't grant such permits. That falls under the purview of the USDA, which had already issued Savorelli a permit. So it would have been impossible for Savorelli to obtain a permit from the state, as Jackson County requires.

Campfield admits that the wording in the ordinance is wrong, meaning that not just Savorelli but every Jackson County resident who keeps wild or exotic animals is technically in violation.

"Oh, it's actually the USDA," Campfield tells the Pitch, explaining the error. "What had happened was that the prosecutor who revised that ordinance [in 2000] put 'state permit' in there. We're trying to get them to revise it again," he says.

But that didn't stop Campfield from using the flawed ordinance to haul Savorelli into court.

Savorelli learned of a new warrant for his arrest in November. Once again he turned himself in. Again, he stayed in jail in Independence for several hours. To get out the first time, his $500 bond was the maximum bond for the "harboring exotic animals" charge. This time, however, the charge had been upgraded to the more serious "animal abuse," and Savorelli was required to post a $2,000 bond.

Savorelli worries that such an allegation could harm his credibility among animal handlers.

Campfield blames the wording of the abuse charge on the county's computers, saying the system does not have a code for "harboring wild or exotic animals." However, the Jackson County Circuit Court's online docket now lists the reason for Savorelli's court appearance as "own/harbor wild/exotic animals."

To Savorelli, the charge feels personal. "This could hurt my livelihood," he says. "This is how I feed my kids."

Apparently, all Campfield really wanted was a closer look at the monkeys.

"I've been dealing with Mr. Savorelli for about two years now, maybe longer," Campfield tells the Pitch. "This really could have been all avoided. All he'd have had to do was let me inspect his facility. End of story."

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