By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ralph Mendez stood before a dozen or so low-ranking politicos with his arms spread wide, his thin mustache unable to contain his toothy grin. "Good morning, and welcome to Old MacDonald's Farm."XX X XFor many members of the city park board, it was their first visit to this sizable chunk of Dallas-owned acreage hidden in the sticks between Mesquite and Sunnyvale. Samuell Farm Park was supposed to look like a late-19th-century farm--red barn, wood fences, white chickens--and was designed to give city kids a chance to cavort with nature and feed barnyard animals corn from a 25-cent gumball machine. Some 24,000 schoolchildren field-tripped here last year, and most of them had a good time. But ever since Samuell Farm fired longtime employee Kathy Rogers last summer for allegedly assaulting a first-grader, complaints about this all-but-forgotten property have been flooding City Hall.
On February 11, Mendez, the assistant parks director in charge of the farm, needed the park board to see that allegations of animal abuse, tree killing, illegal dumping, and nature rape had no merit. "The inspector from the USDA [Department of Agriculture] was out here yesterday," he said, "and I am very proud to report that we have received our license...We passed...We are in compliance...The animals are healthy again."
But according to Dr. Jeanne Kjos, the inspector from the USDA, which regulates animal exhibitions like Samuell Farm, that just wasn't the case.
Oh well, it was getting chilly outside, and park board members wouldn't be there much longer. Mendez continued the meeting by focusing attention on the upcoming Civil War Weekend, something positive that generates real money for the city.
On March 13 and 14, nearly 6,000 people were scheduled to flock to Samuell Farm and pay their $5 to watch 1,000 mock soldiers dressed in blues and grays relive battles from the Civil War. The Parson's Dragoon and 12th Texas Cavalry, regional groups of Civil War buffs, sponsor the annual event. Park board members listened as re-enactors touted the weekend--complete with cannon fire and other pyrotechnics--as educational and fun for the whole family. Mendez reminded everyone of the free publicity that this re-enactment had received from the History Channel and The Dallas Morning News. He also stressed that the event had provided a consistent revenue stream for the cash-hungry Department of Park and Recreation.
Doug Melton, manager of the farm, then took his City Hall visitors on a guided tour. They marveled over an 800-pound hog and giggled when a longhorn urinated in the wind. They piled into the petting zoo as the animals munched madly at their feet; some board members captured this Kodak moment with disposable cameras. "Man, we're having fun!" one member shouted. The animals sure seemed happy.
But on this 45-minute tour, which covered only about 75 of the farm's 640 acres, the park board hardly saw the real Samuell Farm. No one took them to the site of a 20-foot-high pile of trash visible through leafless trees, nor to a second dump site festering behind the evergreens at Pig Lake, where a broken portable toilet sat atop a mound of dirt embedded with insecticide cans, beer cans, the tailgate of a white city truck, and several orange barricades. A rusted "Do not dig anywhere in this area" sign was crumpled in the wreckage.
Two larger dump sites were hidden still deeper in the woods. One looked just slightly littered, but the sinking dirt covered 25 feet of landfill. And along the banks and in the water of the North Mesquite Creek, which flows into the Trinity River, countless boulders of concrete and environmentally unfriendly asphalt protruded from tangled cobwebs of steel rebar.
The park board never toured the main barn either--a dank facility that houses the wildlife rehabilitation center. Once inside, they would have seen large peacocks roosting in rafters speckled with rat feces. They probably wouldn't have opened the two freezers, full of dead hens, peacocks, and geese. Melton did, however, take the board behind the barn to the under-renovation hog pen, which was cluttered with power tools. "We've got a drainage problem we're dealing with," Melton said, pointing to the muddy wallow. "We found out there's a natural spring running underneath it."
But Melton, like Mendez, was just saying what the park board wanted to hear. City plumbers and farm staff knew there was no natural spring--just a leaky pipe. The real drainage problem was the hog feces that trickled out of a white plastic tube, collecting in a small pool before running down to the creek.
None the wiser, city officials headed back to the "town hall" building, where they laughed over their goat-feeding adventures and pushed through the line of catered Sonny Bryan's barbecue. While they ate, Melton and Mendez chatted outside, obviously proud that the tour had gone so well. What had been obscured from view was Samuell Farm's own civil war, a simmering battle between those who want to make it a revenue-generating playground for re-enactors and Wild West enthusiasts and those who see it as a nature preserve and rehab center for wounded wildlife.
Animal caretaker Kathy Rogers would claim she was the war's first casualty. But the fight has left scars on the habitat and its inhabitants, pitting environmentalists and animal-rights activists against farm managers and city bureaucrats in a war of attrition over the very soul of the place.