North Florida big cat facility concerns neighbors

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Saturday, January 20, 2007 10:41 PM EST

Several adult tigers live in a state-approved, non-profit animal sanctuary in southern Columbia County and the presence of the big cats has sparked concern among neighbors and county officials who want to know more about the facility.

Jungle Paradise Zoo, Inc., operated by James Garretson as a non-profit organization in Columbia County, is located on Southwest Churchill Way. The zoo has been in this location for 21/2 years.

Neighbors have reported complaints, which include improper drainage, excessive animal odor and expressed concerns it could represent a safety hazard for any children playing nearby.

Marge Hickey, who lives next door to Jungle Paradise, said she is concerned that the animals aren’t being fed well and believes the animals represent a safety hazard for the area.

“We’re concerned with the safety situation,” she said. “It’s possible kids can climb over or under the fence.”

Inspections by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission haven’t turned up any problems at the facility.

Garretson said that the trouble between he and Hickey stems from a “personal vendetta.”

“Our facility is clean,” Garretson said Saturday. “There is nothing that can be said. It’s not a safety issue, no issue other than a personal attack. Why have I been here this many years and they’re just now saying something?”

Garretson said there is very little odor from the facility, as he said he uses 10 gallons of bleach daily to clean the area where the tigers stay. He also said the animals are considered overweight, a claim confirmed by FWC Investigator Kenneth Holmes.

Garretson said he owns nine tigers at the facility, including a couple of tiger cubs and one full-size white tiger.

According to a 2005 inspection report by the United States Department of Agriculture, obtained from the Jungle Paradise Zoo, Inc., Web site, the facility housed, at that time, approximately 10 tigers and one coatimundi, a member of the racoon family.

The zoo’s Web site states its mission is to provide “lifelong homes for animals retired from the entertainment industry.”

The tigers are contained in steel pens with three-inch square tubing bars, inside an 8-foot high chain link fence surrounding Garretson’s property. Garretson’s Web site for Jungle Paradise Zoo, Inc., indicates the tigers are able to exercise in a 22,000 square-foot pen.

Garretson said he is regulated by the state and has frequently been visited by FWC and other state officials regarding the sanctuary.

The FWC has been called to the site several times for various accusations, but most are unfounded, Holmes said.

“I can’t tell you I haven’t found some things wrong, such as a dirty water bowl,” Holmes said. “Minor problems, but nothing I would say would be out of the ordinary.”

Hickey complained that the animals at times go without food, but Holmes said his inspections found that, if anything, the animals are overweight.

“There are some unfounded accusations,” Holmes said. “It’s a sprinkling of truth in a plate of exaggeration.”

Columbia County Dist. 4 County Commissioner Stephen Bailey said to keep animals on the land, Garretson would have to apply for a special exception under the land development regulations of Columbia County because he is in an agricultural district.

County Manager Dale Williams said Garretson has applied for that permit.

“I do know there is an individual who apparently obtained appropriate Fish and Wildlife permits to house at least three tigers,” Williams said. “I do know the individual who has those is in the process of filing for a special exception, which is what would be required through the zoning law. I know there was an issue with that application and the issue had to do with the legal entity he was applying under.”

According to the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations, the registered agent for Jungle Paradise Zoo Inc. was Nicole H. Demers, who resigned that position on Oct. 27, 2006.

The division of corporations Web site also states that a revocation of voluntary dissolution was filed on Sept. 25, 2006.

Garretson, who once traveled the country with animal exhibits, said he opened the sanctuary almost three years ago after he became attached to the animals.

“I saw it was wrong having them locked up and traveling all over the country,” he said. “So we built facilities where they can just live their lives out.”

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