Crime

Ohio official used town funds to buy a wildebeest for his roadside zoo

A former public official in Ohio was convicted of using public funds to purchase wild animals and other items for his roadside zoo and Airbnb rental.

Animals in an enclosure at a roadside zoo.
Animals at Union Ridge Wildlife Center.
Ohio Auditor's Office

Details of how a convicted town official used public funds to finance a "roadside zoo" at an Ohio Airbnb were released to the public on Tuesday.

According to Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, Cyril S. Vierstra, a former fiscal officer for Vinton Township, Ohio, used town funds to purchase a wildebeest, two owls and windows for a primate exhibit at his roadside zoo. He also bought hot tubs, a snow cone machine and other items that had nothing to do with the operations of the township, Faber said. 

There was also an Airbnb attached to Vierstra's Union Ridge Wildlife Center. According to Airbnb, the property has a 4.95 rating among 229 reviews. After Scripps News reported on this Airbnb being open for bookings, the listing has since been removed.

An Airbnb spokesperson told Scripps News that following our story, it removed the listing, prohibited Vierstra from being a host and canceled all future reservations.  

Dozens of reviewers mentioned interacting with animals on the property. 

"There are so many animals including the cutest otter ever," one reviewer wrote in January. 

"Cy's place was wonderful! We had so much fun walking around the property and seeing all of the animals," another reviewer wrote late last year.

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Last week, Save the Chimps confirmed it was granted custody of four chimpanzees from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The chimps were relocated to a location in Florida.

"These are extremely intelligent chimpanzees who deserve the chance to explore a larger world," said Save the Chimps' Director of Chimpanzee Behavior and Care Andrew Halloran. "We look forward to seeing them thrive on a vast island habitat with 15-20 new lifelong companions, with the freedom to choose where they want to be and who they want to be with."

In November 2022, PETA sent a letter to the Ohio Department of Agriculture to investigate the Airbnb. It claimed that Vierstra lacked the proper permits to have these animals on the property.

"Vierstra's marketing of the dangerous wild animals on Airbnb and his use of the rental proceeds should be thoroughly investigated," the report said.

Faber's office said Viestra used public funds for 812 debit card transactions totaling $127,204 on an online auction website. 

Vierstra pleaded guilty on felony counts of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, theft in office, and tampering with records, plus a misdemeanor count of dereliction of duty. In February, he was sentenced to four years and 11 months in prison and ordered to pay $339,717 in restitution.