Ontario town rejects proposal for exotic animal facility

By TIFFANY MAYER, Standard Staff

Local News – Wednesday, July 18, 2007 Updated @ 2:43:04 AM

If at first you don’t succeed, apply, apply again.

That’s what Chris Morabito and his family will do after Thorold council voted Tuesday night against accepting the Morabitos’ proposal to build an animal sanctuary at Kottmeier and Holland roads.

Speaking on Morabito’s behalf after he refused to comment on council’s decision, Tracey McCarthy, political consultant for Morabito’s The Exotic Animal Rescue Society (TEARS), said the organization will apply to the city again to construct a sanctuary for injured, old or abandoned exotic animals ranging from reptiles to lions and tigers.

“We know that council supported the project but there were problems with rules being followed,” McCarthy said.

A detailed staff report cited several instances where the Morabitos didn’t comply with orders to stop work on the property because they did not have proper permits, including for tree removal and building pens for animals.

The application also didn’t fulfil all the requirements of a provincial policy statement. No archaeological assessment was done.

The property also sits on prime agricultural land. A consultant’s report didn’t convince staff that alternative locations had been considered for the sanctuary.

The report also highlighted concerns about the impact some of the work already done will have on the environment, including effects on ecologically sensitive Twelve Mile Creek. The property is located at the headwaters of the creek, the only cold water stream in Niagara.

There is also wetland on the property of which no one knows the significance. A woodlot on the site has also been identified as an environmental conservation area in the Regional Policy Plan, although that designation is being appealed.

But McCarthy said the land had been neglected prior to the Morabitos purchasing it and starting work on the sanctuary.

Planning staff also had a difficult time accepting the proposal as a “bona fide sanctuary” because the proposal included breeding and public display components, and use of animals in the film and television industry, Adele Arbour, city planner told council.

“Although we appreciate the sincerity of the applicant and her family’s commitment to the health and welfare of the animals, it is planning staff’s opinion that the proposal seems to exhibit zoo-like characteristics,” Arbour said.

Councillors also heard the pleas of representatives from the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Zoocheck Canada, a zoo watchdog, imploring them to turn down the proposal.

Melissa Tkachyk, society programs officer, said the proposal sounded more like a roadside zoo than a sanctuary for exotic animals to be rehabilitated and live in peace.

“I think if the applicants want to proceed with this endeavour they should at least change the name,” Tkachyk said. “Let’s be clear, this is a zoo.”

There are currently more than 60 wildlife facilities in Ontario, she noted. Only seven are accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Tkachyk wasn’t convinced TEARS would bring that number to eight, particularly considering Ontario’s lax zoo regulations and “archaic” animal cruelty laws.

Rob Laidlaw, Zoocheck executive director, also questioned the sustainability of the organization. He said TEARS charitable status had been revoked by for not filing proper documentation with Revenue Canada.

But in the end, it was concerns about the municipality being responsible for monitoring the treatment of the animals and the Morabitos’ forging ahead with construction without approval that compelled some councillors to reject the proposal.

“No rules have followed from the outset,” Coun. Jim Handley said. “I cannot condone this by the simple fact that if we condone this, what if someone goes into a residential area and starts building a commercial entity” without permission?

Coun. Fred Neale called the Morabitos’ intentions admirable but like Handley couldn’t support the proposal because rules weren’t followed.

“I like the people. I think they want to help the community… but the rules and regulations must be followed,” Neale said.

But McCarthy said some councillors said they wouldn’t support the proposal “at this time.” That gave her the impression council would support TEARS providing the organization follow proper procedure — an opportunity afforded them if they re-apply to build the sanctuary.

“They’re in support of the the project but the policies must be met stringently,” McCarthy said.

“It’s been a learning process and we’ll continue to learn an improve.”

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