Judge rules Wisc. big cat facility violated ordinances
By Brian D. Bridgeford
Though big cat advocate Jeff Kozlowski is building a new home for his animals, he is not out of the woods over an old case, a judge ruled last week.
In a ruling filed last week, Sauk County Judge James Evenson rules against Kozlowski and his Big Dad’s Big Cat Rescue and Educational Center located on Highway 136, east of Rock Springs.
Kozlowksi began his cat rescue activities with four lions and tigers at his home on Highway 12 near Prairie du Sac. He was trying to win a permit under Sauk County’s large animal ordinance when he moved to the Rock Springs location in late 2005 and eventually ended up with 16 tigers, six lions and two leopards which have been abused or abandoned. The refuge is likely their last chance of survival because of the shortage of space in other refuges, Kozlowski says.
After the rapid expansion in the number of cats and the move to Rock Springs neighbors began complaining about noise, traffic and the possible safety risks.
Sauk County officials determined Kozlowski violated zoning ordinances with the location of his sanctuary and the county Public Health Board issued abatement orders in April and July of 2006 demanding he remove the animals. Kozlowski did not comply. So, in September the county filed a civil forfeiture action against him in Sauk County Court.
In ruling for the county, Evenson confirms Kozlowski violated county zoning rules and the large animal ordinance and that the refuge constitutes a public health nuisance. He rejects arguments made by Kozlowski’s attorney that the educational mission of the center justifies its operation.
“The animals remain in Sauk County in violation of zoning and health ordinances,” Evenson wrote. “Kozlowski was ordered to abate and failed to do so.”
The county has already reached a plea agreement with his landlords, David and Joy Carroll. As part of their settlement they have filed an eviction action against Kozlowski which is set for trial in September.
Kozlowski’s companion, Jennifer Meyer, has no control over the big cats, Evenson ruled, so she cannot be penalized for her involvement in caring for them.
The judge’s ruling does not specify any fine or other penalty for Kozlowski or the non-profit organization that operates the refuge.
Sauk County Corporation Counsel Todd Liebman would not comment on what penalties or remedy he would argue for, other than saying he will seek fines against Kozlowski.
A primary concern for the county is to end the violation of county ordinances by getting the big cats out of their present location, he said. And county officials want that to happen as soon as the court is willing to let it.
“Where the cats go outside of the county’s jurisdiction is not the major concern,” he said. “The major concern is to get them out of our regulatory jurisdiction. Our patience is completely worn thin,” Liebman said.
Kozlowski’s attorney, Jeff Scott Olson of Madison, says he expects the parties will schedule a hearing to argue what fines or other remedies are appropriate. He hopes the issue will be made largely moot when Kozlowski finishes construction of a new refuge and moves his 24 cats into Rock Springs.
“Steps that need to be taken to move the cats out of the county’s jurisdiction and into their new home in the village of Rock Springs are well underway,” he said. “Construction is well underway at the new facility.
“We’re hoping that the court does not impose any remedy that imposes unnecessary destruction on the cats or their operation,” Olson said.
The judge can’t order something like the destruction of the cats, he said, because it is the location of the refuge which is in violation of ordinances, not the animals themselves.
Olson said he can’t comment on whether they will appeal the ruling to a higher court until the court orders a remedy.
Kozlowski would not comment on the case Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ll have to talk to my attorney, obviously we’re going to meet,” he said. “It’s up to my attorney.”
Workers will likely begin this morning and continue Friday pounding 22-foot-high steel posts into the ground to build the pens for housing the big cats, Kozlowski said. The welded steel mesh which forms the sides of the enclosures will be 15 feet high, he said.
Kozlowski said his first step will be to finish building the sanctuary in the next several weeks, then have it inspected by the village and federal Department of Agriculture. He will move the cats into their new homes before he finishes agreements with the village about how to open the center to the public.
Kozlowski said he hopes to have all the agreements worked out and the sanctuary open for public viewing in July.
“Our priority is to get the cats moved from where they are to a place where they’re not violating an ordinance,” Kozlowski said.