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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Moapa, Nev.

A Noah's Ark in the desert

Animal lovers open their home to share their collection of kangaroos, porcupines, camels and more with visitors.

November 23, 2009|By Ashley Powers
  • Husband and wife veterinary team Valerie and Jay Holt clean the eyes of a porcupine at their Moapa Zoo in Nevada.
Husband and wife veterinary team Valerie and Jay Holt clean the eyes of a… (Duane Prokop / Las Vegas…)

When the recession cut into Jay and Valerie Holt's veterinary practice, their financial bind was more pressing than most. The couple care for a menagerie worthy of Noah's Ark. The monthly grocery bill? $10,000.

Jay suggested they sell some of their 160 creatures, including kangaroos, opossums, anteaters and coatimundi. Valerie balked.

Then came an idea: Since people had long shown up at their home and asked to see the animals, the couple turned their three acres into Roos-N-More Zoo.

"If I started from scratch and built a zoo, I probably wouldn't put my house in the middle," said Valerie, 42, a ring-tailed lemur named Macoco hugging her neck. But it worked.

Though Nevada is often defined by the glitz of Las Vegas, much of the state resembles this unassuming town 50 miles to the north, with 1,000 residents and the topography of a sandbox. Off the two-lane main drag are a post office, an elementary school, a diner (advertising, simply, "Good Food") and endless desert where people tinker with the most improbable of plans.

On a recent Saturday, cars turned at a homemade sign for Roos-N-More, a nonprofit facility accredited by the Zoological Assn. of America. The cars lumbered down a dirt road and parked outside a gate imprinted with a kangaroo. Valerie, in a yellow Roos T-shirt and dirt-stained jeans, stood next to a sizable tunnel near her front porch.

She shook a piece of corn until an African crested porcupine named Racer X crawled out. Racer X is the size of a dog, with a mohawk of black and white quills. As the creature devoured the corn, Valerie began smashing a pumpkin. Onlookers gasped: Behind her, two more porcupines, Thorn and Spike, emerged, their quills spread into giant fans.

"This is incredible," murmured visitor Jan Voight, speaking for her stunned granddaughter, Sofia Macarena, 4.

Almost three years ago, Valerie and Jay, 44, decided to leave the outskirts of Las Vegas. They had about 16 kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos -- the first, Pogo, had been a birthday present to Valerie -- and suburbia was inching closer.

Also, Jay wanted a camel.

Moapa was close enough to commute to their Las Vegas veterinary clinic, Animal Kindness, but far enough that there's no inkling of the Strip. Their acreage was once alfalfa fields and, when they bought it, had neither water nor electricity.

They got two camels, Habib and Sayyid. After Habib died, Valerie surprised her distraught husband with another camel, Jafar, for his birthday. A friend suggested their camels needed a zebra; the Holts bought Razbe (yes, that's an anagram). And so the brood grew.

Valerie and Jay, who attended Louisiana State University's veterinary school together, had seen many small exotic animals in their practice. (Nevada is so rife with exotics that when a tiger escaped near Las Vegas this summer, it barely made news.) Often, Valerie would swoon over a new species and plead with her husband: Just. One. More.

So Jay often found himself flying his six-seat Cessna -- which he'd bought so the couple could travel to veterinary conventions -- to ferry lemurs and porcupines. To transport Jafar, he took out all the seats.

"She doesn't do jewelry," he said of his wife. "She wants an animal she can care for."

One year Valerie declared the couple's "pork anniversary" and received a pot-bellied pig.

The Holts also developed a reputation for raising wounded creatures, such as a one-legged red kangaroo named Boomerang.

Soon, people started calling with questions like, "Do you have room for a bush baby?" That's how they got Grumbles, who had been for sale on Craigslist.

"There's something about these animals that's almost magical," said Valerie, despite the numerous scratches and bruises she's endured.

Her husband staffs the veterinary practice four days a week; she takes the fifth. Whoever is home tends to the flock with help from children Zach, 14, and Hailey, 12, who grew up at the practice and sometimes napped next to the patients. They also have an employee, LynnLee Schmidt, 26, who worked with lions at MGM Grand.

Jay built most of the open enclosures; in one, camels and zebras mix with pigs, goats and sheep.

The Holts turned an old storage shed into an animal kitchen for the family to make the horde's meals. The decor includes a painting by Thumper, a Patagonian cavy (a large guinea pig relative), who had dipped its paws in orange and blue paint. (Artwork by, among others, Sushi the otter and Caico the monkey sells for $25 online.)

Plastic containers are marked "Goat Treats" and "Roo Crumbs." Cards say the coatimundi, members of the raccoon family, relish "monkey biscuits soaked in fruit juice." And the parrots? "Table scraps but no chocolate or junk food." Good to know.

The four-bedroom house is a children's storybook come to life. The coffee table doubles as a home for marbled polecats. Monkey Caico has her own room with a rope hammock and stuffed bears. One afternoon, a duck-like grebe -- found by an animal control officer -- floated in the bathtub.

The Holts, who get a few hundred visitors a month, have kept their entire brood. They've also found work for some animals on "Let's Make A Deal," which films in Las Vegas.

On a warm afternoon, Valerie crouched over the pond and waterfall -- mostly made by Jay -- near the porch. She lifted out Snork, an otter named after the noise he makes when startled, dried him with an aqua towel and asked the half-dozen onlookers: Who wants to pet him?

Little Sofia, who had been enraptured by the porcupines, approached Snork with caution. She touched his dark fur with her fingers. Valerie nodded reassuringly, and Sofia threw both arms around the otter in a giant hug.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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