MACON — The auction stretched into its sixth hour. Cage after cage of tortoises, hedgehogs and tiny gliding possums had slowed sales and thinned the crowd.
But by midafternoon, seats began to refill. A pair of marmoset monkeys hit $3,000. A 6-month-old red kangaroo, held aloft in a baby blanket by its handler, crested $4,000. A leopard-spotted serval kitten stalled at $4,100.
Then a big man in shorts stepped through the wide door from the livestock pens out back. Heads swiveled. The house hushed.
In one hand the man gripped a leash; in the other, he held a baby black bear by its scruff and collar.
The Lolli Brothers Livestock Market, a roadside barn in the middle of this farming town in central Missouri, is one of the most famous live animal auctions in the country, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
And, three months ago, it sold another baby black bear — Boo Boo, the bear that gained infamy in St. Louis when it ended up at a Washington University event, nibbled on 18 college students, and caused a weeklong campus rabies scare.
Last week, Lolli held its second exotic auction of the year. Trucks in the gravel lot bore license plates from Florida to Wisconsin, Texas to North Carolina.
Some came for the taxidermy. On Wednesday and Thursday, three Lolli brothers — Frankie, Dominic and Tim — planned to auction about 4,000 stuffed animals, Tim said, including a snarling wolf, a full-maned African lion, a rearing zebra and a polar bear from Alaska tagged at $8,000.
Others drove in for the game animals — a 900-pound elk with antlers thick as a wrist, rising like branches 8 feet high; curved-horned African audad goats, with beards that hung like Spanish moss from their chests and legs; and fleet-footed twisted-horned blackbuck antelope — largely bound for pay-to-hunt ranches and, eventually, hunters' walls.
Still others sought pets: baby monkeys in diapers clinging to owners' chests. Cockatoos the size of a man's arm. Camels for petting zoos. Zebras tame enough to ride.
Lolli is one of the few places still catering to exotic dealers, patrons said.
"There's not a whole lot left in the country," said Jeremiah Tietz, owner of Saginaw Tropical Animal Brokerage in Michigan. Tietz said he'd been breeding and dealing in animals nearly all of his life. He sold camels to Chuck Norris, a kinkajou to Paris Hilton and spider monkeys to the Playboy Mansion, he said. He was in town last week with his wife and two sons to sell hedgehogs, anteaters, Asian palm civets, arctic foxes and a sloth.
The auction house has come under public scrutiny from time to time. In 1992, a water buffalo gored and killed its owner in the ring. In 2012, a federal investigation associated older brother Jim Lolli, who no longer runs the company, with the illegal sale of black rhinoceros horns.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the company several times. Last year, inspectors noted Bengal cats in enclosures so small they couldn't turn around; rabbits in cages with sharp corners; primates living in their own waste; and unsupervised contact between the public and the animals.
Then, this spring, an attorney at the animal rights organization PETA called the auction house "notorious" after learning that Lolli had sold a little black bear from a southern Missouri drive-through zoo to a man who didn't seem to have the proper permits.
The state Department of Conservation opened an investigation. Authorities said last week they had cited the purchaser and Cindy Farmer, owner of the petting zoo that brought the bear to Washington University for the finals-week event.
Lolli, investigators said, hadn't broken any state laws. As auctioneers, the brothers facilitated the sale from the owner to the buyer. They earned a commission — usually 10 percent to 20 percent — but never owned the animal.
Know the regulations
Last week, many at the exotic auction — farmers, breeders, collectors and dealers — praised the brothers and their facility.
Charlie Ward and his wife, Wilma, traveled from Virginia with three teens from their local 4-H club — and a few zebras. The Wards, both schoolteachers, raise zebras for fun.
"We enjoy the animals," Wilma said. "It's a beautiful animal. A little crazy sometimes. But fun."
Dale and Tonya Anderson drove up from their farm on the Florida Panhandle. They keep tropical birds, hedgehogs, miniature pigs, sheep and emus.
"This is a good outlet for people buying high-end exotic stuff," Tonya said. "You can sell your excess and buy new blood lines."
Jared and Jenna Williams brought their daughter, son and nephew from Lancaster, Mo., about an hour north of Macon. Jenna liked how the kids got to see the animals up close. Jared said the show is also great for local business.
And that, in general, was the sentiment around town. Lisa Bender, a waitress at AJ's Eat & Drink, said the restaurant has to staff up for the auctions.
"It's kind of like hunting season," she said. "The exotic sale is a pretty big deal around here."
Candice Jenkins, a front desk clerk at the Comfort Inn, said the sale fills rooms.
"We're almost completely booked through the week," she said. "This is always our big time."
But locals shrugged some when discussing the animals themselves. A black bear? For sale?
"If you have the means to do that, I think it's great," said Bender, at AJ's. "I mean, I wouldn't want it as my next door neighbor."
Frank Lolli, the oldest brother still in the business, said he didn't want to talk for a news story — there's just been too much bad press about exotic animals, he said.
But as the auction got started Thursday morning, Frank Lolli addressed some concerns, warning buyers: "Make sure you know the regulations of your state," he told the crowd. "Once we sell them, they're your animals."
The auction started slowly, grinding through lizards, birds and all those hedgehogs. The monkeys and kangaroos brought some bidding battles. Then the little black bear came out. The bear rolled around in the auction ring, behind the metal fence that rose at least 12 feet. It grabbed its handler, sucked milk from a bottle, and then tore the bottle's nipple off.
The crowd loved it. The auctioneer sang out bids: $400, $600, $800, $1,000. The fight narrowed to two groups: a family in the upper corner, and two teens in front.
Seconds later, it was over. Bidding crested at $1,200. One of the teens, Hayden Gagnon, won. He said he would bring the bear home to the DeYoung Family Zoo, in Wallace, Mich.
The other bidder, Jonah White, had driven out with two sons and a daughter from their home in Hardin, Ill., about 70 miles north of St. Louis. Still, White, the founder of Billy-Bob Products, which has sold millions of dollars' worth of fake teeth and other gags, wasn't upset.
"I've got one already in my backyard," he said. "They make for great pets."
And this bear, he said, was just too expensive.