Deadline set for cat refuge owned by Jeff Kozlowski

Deadline set for cat refuge


By Brian D. Bridgeford



Twenty-four lions, tigers and leopards living just east of Rock Springs must be moved to their new sanctuary in the village by July 31, a judge ruled Thursday, or Sauk County has the authority to send them elsewhere.


Big cat advocate Jeff Kozlowski and fellow supporters of the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and Education Center faced off in Sauk County Court with the county’s legal representative, county Corporation Council Todd Liebman.


In May, Circuit Court Judge James Evenson ruled Kozlowski and the refuge were in violation of county zoning and exotic animal control ordinances. On Thursday, the county was seeking to force removal of the cats from its jurisdiction and to fine Kozlowski for past violations.


Liebman wanted the cats gone within 10 days and had sought fines of between $67,000 and $440,000 for Kozlowski and the refuge. Kozlowski and the center must work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos and licenses animal caretakers, to move the animals, he said.


The cat center’s attorney, Jeff Scott Olson of Madison, countered that Kozlowski and supporters already have spent more than $100,000 to construct a sanctuary within village limits, where county ordinances don’t apply. Work on the center will be done within weeks, and the cats could be moved between mid-July and Aug. 1.


Village President Harlan Behnke is also president of a nonprofit organization board, which runs the Rescue and Education Center. Officials and center supporters are moving quickly to set rules and regulations to make the sanctuary a safe attraction residents will be proud of, he said.


"It’s been a lot of work," Behnke said.


Under questioning from Liebman, Behnke said Kozlowski would continue as a licensed animal caretaker.


Liebman said he received a faxed message from the USDA on Thursday saying Kozlowski faces a $23,000 fine because he violated regulations.


"In the county’s view, Kozlowski is not responsible," Liebman said.


Kozlowski said the violation was a minor issue involving inadequate maintenance, not about proper care for the animals.


"They just renewed my license last week. They wouldn’t issue me another license if they were going to take it away," he said. "If you question a fine and show just cause why it happened, it gets dropped."


Olson said the court has no idea what would happen to the cats if the court ordered them moved within 10 days, rather than waiting for their new home to be complete.


"I’d hate to see these animals get forced out so they get sent to someplace down south where they would be used in canned big game hunts, rather than wait a few weeks," he said.


Evenson ordered the cats removed from the county’s jurisdiction, but he rejected a 10-day deadline.


"I don’t believe the additional four weeks above and beyond what the county has requested is unreasonable," Evenson said.


Liebman said he accepts the court’s decision.


"I’m pleased the end is apparently in sight," he said. "I would prefer 10 days, (but) that’s up to the court."


Because there was a need for additional witness testimony, the judge delayed a decision on the fines Kozlowski and the refuge should pay. No date has been set for that hearing.


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