Taxpayer Cash for a Wildebeest? The Wild Case of an Ohio Official’s Exotic Purchases

In a bizarre tale of public funds misuse, Cy Vierstra, a former fiscal officer in Vinton Township, Ohio, has been sentenced to 59 months in prison after stealing more than $300,000 of taxpayer money to fund his private zoo and personal expenses. Among the items purchased were a wildebeest, two snow owls, a snow cone machine, kayaks, hot tubs, a popcorn cart, a drum set, and even a CPR manikin.

Vierstra, who operated the Union Ridge Wildlife Center in Wilkesville, Vinton County, pleaded guilty to theft in office, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, and other charges. State auditor records reveal that Vierstra spent $4,116.30 on the wildebeest and $4,963.77 on the snow owls. The total amount stolen has since surpassed $340,000, which Vierstra has been ordered to pay back.

It seems that Vierstra’s cunning and audacity went beyond just stealing public funds. He reportedly created and uttered numerous false records, including invoices, billing slips, and other purchase and payment documents, to disguise the true nature and purpose of his personal expenditures. He also falsified copies of township trustee minutes to cover his tracks during the 2018-2019 financial audit of Vinton Township.

The Union Ridge Wildlife Center, now infamous, housed various exotic animals, such as chimps, monkeys, tigers, and lemurs. Recently, animal rights organization PETA assisted in relocating four chimpanzees from Vierstra’s property to an accredited sanctuary in Florida.

This outrageous case highlights the importance of transparency and accountability in public office. While Vierstra’s prison sentence sends a strong message, it’s a sobering reminder that taxpayer money is all too often taken for granted and used for personal gain.