By Stephen Guilfoyle / Editor
Story posted Feb 09, 2007 – 15:49:44 EST
A Rock Hill woman’s request for a zoning change has some north Chester County residents concerned.
She wants to change her tract from a residential zone to an agricultural zone so she can keep “exotic” animals.
Tigers and other big cats, to be precise.
One of them is a 650-pound white Bengal tiger named Zeus who eats about 150 pounds of raw meat a week.
But Lea Marianne Jaunakais has about 10 “big cats” she wants to bring to the county, if she can get approval.
The Chester County Planning Commission will meet in two weeks to consider her and another request.
Chester County Councilman Tommy Martin said he has heard complaints from “good people” who live in the area and object to the change.
“They’re afraid of having wild animals out there,” he said.
Martin has said he will vote against the rezoning when it comes to County Council. The commission must hear the request first, he said.
The application for the rezoning doesn’t list details of what “Tiger World” will be if the rezoning for 40 acres on Simple Farm Road is approved.
Mack Paul, the county’s acting planning director, said applicants are not required to fill out a detailed form to show what they want to do with a zoning request.
He doesn’t know if the animals would be caged or allowed to roam the property, since there is no sketch of what she wants to build.
Several letters refer to what Jaunakais wants to build as “Tiger World.”
Jaunakais’s request comes with a stack of letters of recommendation endorsing Jaunakais’ request. Some come from people as far away as Arizona. Many come from people in York County who are familiar with Jaunakais. A few are from Chester County residents.
None are from people who live nearby.
Former County Councilman William Stephenson lives in the area and says he and his neighbors, some who live right next to the land, are 100 percent against it.
He doesn’t think such a facility should be in any neighborhood, not just the area of Chester County in which it’s requested.
“This is four miles from Chester,” he said. “Near Capers Chapel Church.”
He heard about the request from Marvin Grant, a member of the planning commission that Stephenson appointed when he was on the council.
Stephenson said the people who want to bring this will say they can keep the animals contained, but he’s a farmer and knows that animals, sooner or later, will get out.
“We got 5,000 head of cow within a five mile radius,” he said. “There’s 1,000 head of horse. We got goats and chickens all around. And there’s people. My grandchildren are here. My mother is a tenth of a mile from this.”
Once an animal gets out of a cage or pen, it reverts to animal instinct, he said.
“That’s the one good thing about zoning,” he said. “You have to approve to make changes.”
The animal park would not be allowed under the current residential zoning. Agricultural zoning would allow it, though Jaunakais said she is working with the Planning Department to come up with zoning codes for animals welfare spaces.
Her application is also packed with a copy of the federal Animal Welfare Act on the handling of exotic animals. Paul said he believes Jaunakais intends to operate her facility under those rules.
Heather Patterson of Fountains Hills, Ariz. wrote a letter endorsing the request.
She said that she has worked with exotic animals for 17 years and has been a friend of Jaunakais for nine.
Jaunakais has “a strong passion for wildlife,” Patterson writes, and is safety minded.
The tract is four miles north of Chester off U.S. Highway 321.
Another recommendation from a woman named Betty Guy said she has met Lea and her tigers and “was amazed.”
One letter says Jaunakais let her Girl Scout troop into the habitat with a tiger and she never felt scared.
Most of the letters contain an address for the people making a recommendation, but most do not contain phone numbers.
A Fort Lawn woman and a Chester man wrote letters of recommendation for Jaunakais .
One from someone with the same last name said that Jaunakais called “Tiger World” an exotic animal education center. It said that Jaunakais has a degree in biology with an animal behavior concentration.
It says Jaunakais was known as “Lulu Lion” as a kid, and she has always been “passionate” about animals.
It also contains a recommendation from a Rock Hill veterinarian who says Jaunakais always follows his medical advice in caring for her animals.
She said Thursday that she has been in animal husbandry since 1994.
She currently keeps her big cats at a private facility somewhere in North Carolina. She said some live in a neighborhood where everyone loves them, and wake up to the roar of the big cats.
She said she has a degree in biology from Arizona State with a minor in chemistry.
“I’m a scientist,” she said.
She has been interested in big cats and their extinction from when she was 3-years-old. She saw a documentary about tigers and said she decided then to be a part of saving the species.
The center will educate people about how the species are dying out, and also be a location where they can be bred to prevent the extinction.
Zeus is a white Bengal from the same breeding line, she says, as the white tigers that Las Vegas magicians Siegfried and Roy use in their stage act.
That is a concern to Darlene Steen. She lives on the same road and is opposed to the business.
Siegfried and Roy’s tiger snapped about two years ago and almost killed one of the performers.
She said she is researching claims in a letter of recommendation from Jaunakais’ parents in the file. The letter says the woman trained with a legendary Florida trainer.
That trainer had a tiger that killed a person, was not put down, then killed the trainer’s wife.
“He’s still in the tiger business,” Steen said.
Jaunakais said she won’t open the preserve to the public like a zoo, but will have guided tours.
She said she has had her tigers in the Come See Me parade in Rock Hill, taken them to nursing homes and Boy Scout and Girl Scout functions.
She hopes to educate the public about extinction as well as show the animals in natural habitats.
She said the facility would be regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act.
Steen said she is working with others to fight the change. They are also preparing an ordinance to present to County Council to ban such facilities.
Even if the commission and the council vote against the facility, she believes Jaunakais could sue to get her facility in.
The animals will be kept in enclosures, from a third of an acre to an acre in size, Jaunakais said, designed to show the natural habitat.
She has a couple of black maned lions, three blond maned lions, a siberian tiger. The white bengal tiger is a breed that is no longer found in the wild, with only about 400 left in the world.
She would move to the property when the habitat is built. It is part of the federal regulations, she said. She bought the property last year.
She said her facility will not just meet the federal guidelines but exceed them. The habitats will have taller enclosure walls, the fences will be taller and there will be double-door gates in and out. She will also put in security cameras.
The safety measures are vital, she said.
The commission will meet at 7 p.m., Tuesday Feb. 20 at the War Memorial Building.
Jaunakais’ request is the second of two items on the commission’s agenda.
Stephenson said there would be a crowd there to oppose the request.