Monday, June 27, 2005

Lynn Wittmeier

Lynn Wittmeier

Check for yourself to see if they meet the sanctuary standards for an accredited animal refuge.

FL Charlotte County rules against animal menagerie

Sanctuary lost

The owners of a haven for exotic animals in Punta Gorda get a court-imposed deadline to remove them.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer

Published June 27, 2005

PUNTA GORDA - Lynn Wittmeier calls to her baby in a sing-song voice, all lovey and maternal.

"Cassie," she coos. "Where's my Cassie?"

Cassie, a 600-pound Bengal tiger, perks up like a house cat that just heard the can opener. She gets on her feet and walks out of her shady nap spot toward Wittmeier's voice. She emits a little roaring purr, which sounds a bit like this: "Rawr-oh."

It's a moment like this that Wittmeier will miss.

On June 14, a judge ruled that Lions, Tigers and Bears - Wittmeier's animal sanctuary - has to remove the three lions, three tigers and two bears from the property. And the four cougars, one wolf and one macaque monkey.

It has nothing to do with safety - the sanctuary has never had an escape or attack in its five years in Charlotte County . The reasons for the court order are more mundane: Lions, Tigers and Bears doesn't have the proper permits or zoning to operate in that part of the county, Judge Isaac Anderson said.

The animals must be gone within six months.

"There is no way we can move them in six months," said Wittmeier, who runs the sanctuary with her husband, Dennis, and a handful of unpaid volunteers. "I can't imagine ever leaving here."

There was a time not long ago in Florida when people like Wittmeier could buy a patch of land, build some cages and rescue abandoned or abused exotic animals. Rural Florida was sparsely populated, not scattered with subdivisions and targeted by developers.

Now, municipal officials from Clearwater to Coral Gables are rethinking zoning laws to exclude potentially dangerous animals. The public, frightened by a spate of maulings, generally backs such laws.

"It's definitely more difficult to get the right zoning," said Scott Lope, general manager of Big Cat Rescue in northwest Hillsborough County . "This is the problem with people trying to take care of these animals. A lot of these smaller places aren't thinking further ahead.

"They're supposed to be a rescue facility and now they're the ones in need of rescue. We hear about it all the time."

* * *

They started with Sammy.

In the early 1990s, the Wittmeiers volunteered at an animal sanctuary in the Fort Myers area. Sammy, a cougar cub, was a new resident. He had two owners before he was 2 months old, and the Wittmeiers fell in love with him.

The sanctuary allowed the Wittmeiers to adopt Sammy. They received state permits and built a cage on their small North Fort Myers property.

"Then, people kept bringing us more animals," Wittmeier said.

Most came from the photo trade ("Get your picture taken with a baby tiger!" Wittmeier snorts); one lion was discarded from a circus; and the macaque monkey was brought in because it killed a bunch of female monkeys during breeding. Others, including Sammy's previous owners, realized a wild animal was too much to handle.

The Wittmeiers knew they had to move to accommodate their growing brood. They found a chunk of land in eastern Charlotte County . For $200,000 they bought 54 acres. That was in 2000, when prices were low.

From the start, the Wittmeiers had problems with Charlotte County officials.

To hear Wittmeier tell it, people in the zoning department urged her to apply for a zoning change - taking the property from a category known as "agricultural estates" to a "planned unit development" in order to build the cages and accommodate the animals.

County officials denied the request.

According to court records, the Wittmeiers moved their animals to the property anyway. The couple contended that their agricultural zoning allowed them to keep exotic animals.

"Boarding, breeding, training of animals was allowed," said sanctuary attorney Ralf Brookes, who added that the county ordinance didn't specify the type of animals allowed or prohibited.

The Wittmeiers built airy cages and sandy trails on the palmetto-lined property. They offered tours, leading hundreds of schoolchildren past the animals. They took on volunteers, including one woman who has a degree in animal behavior. The animals kept coming - some were even brought by state officials, who confiscated them from people without permits.

"I do not think that private owners should own these animals," said Wittmeier, 57. "Yet there's a big market for them."

* * *

At night, Laura Hagopian likes to sit on a plastic chair in front of her mobile home and listen to the tigers roar.

Hagopian lives less than a half-mile from Lions, Tigers and Bears. She has never had a problem living near the sanctuary, not even when Hurricane Charley hit last year and rumors flew around the neighborhood that one or more of the tigers got loose.

"It doesn't bother me at all," she said.

In truth, none of the animals escaped after the hurricane; Wittmeier says it's testimony to how strong the wood, cement and steel enclosures are. All of the enclosures and cages have been inspected and approved by both the state fish and wildlife commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sammy, 12, is the only animal the Wittmeiers have close contact with. He walks on a leash and travels as an "ambassador" for the sanctuary, going to schools and craft fairs.

But other neighbors aren't sold on the sanctuary's security measures or the government's stamp of approval.

They cite recent incidents in Florida - a Hernando man killed by a tiger, a tiger escaping from a Palm Beach man's home last year - as evidence that it's unsafe to live around the creatures.

"How would you like to live within 300 yards of lions, tigers and bears?" asked Madison Ketter, who has lived in the area for half of his 66 years.

Ketter said he keeps "a big gun" in his house, just in case one of the animals gets loose.

* * *

The state licenses 325 people throughout Florida to care for so-called "Class I" animals, such as tigers, bears and monkeys.

But that doesn't mean counties want these animals within their borders. In Pinellas, officials are tightening regulations for exotic animals in unincorporated areas, requiring cages containing livestock and some exotic animals to be set back from property lines. The rule change came after a county commissioner saw a tiger in a cage on the back of a pickup in his St. Petersburg neighborhood.

And in Coral Gables , the planning and zoning board is trying to enact measures to prohibit people from owning large, venomous or exotic snakes.

Charlotte County has been fighting the Wittmeiers in court for 31/2 years.

In 2004, the county asked state officials not to renew the sanctuary's permit because the operation violated zoning codes; the state renewed it anyway.

Judges in both circuit and appeals court ruled against the Wittmeiers.

Wittmeier suspects developers want the land; it is on a stretch of U.S. 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia that is dotted with "For Sale" signs.

The animals can't just be dropped off at a zoo; those facilities often have genetic requirements for their animals.

Wittmeier says she can't find 54 acres at a reasonable price, definitely not in Charlotte County and maybe not in Florida . She barely makes a profit as it is.

"I don't know where these animals are going to go," she said. "I won't place them in a facility that is just row on row of cages."

--Times researcher Carolyn Edds and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 27, 2005, 01:06:04]

Places like these are NOT sanctuaries. They are pet owners supporting themselves by keeping caged animals. Zoning laws are the only way we can put a stop to people doing this sort of thing and fueling the need for exotic cats. If it weren't so easy to dump last year's baby, then that industry would have to change. In case you haven't seen the Lions, Tigers and Bears website that is supposedly SO educational, and the reason for their existence, you may want to look at their "panthers" and the fact that the only education is on how to find them to support them.

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