By DEIRDRE CONNER,
The residents of Mill Creek Estates don't agree on everything: How loud is a lion's roar? How many acres should be required to house a dozen big cats and a pack of wolves? And who should regulate them?
The once-agricultural St. Johns County neighborhood is the location of the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, home to dozens of big cats and wolves. Some of the neighbors don't like having it nearby. But they will agree on one thing: This is not your average neighborhood dispute.
Conflicts like it are one of the reasons why the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is in the years-long process of updating regulations on captive wildlife. But, as the commissioners found at their meeting last week in Jacksonville, it's never that clear-cut. In another round of proposed regulations, the commission got an earful from exotic wild animal owners, breeders, and rescuers – and from ordinary residents who want stricter controls over who should own wildlife, and where.
The animals at the Wild Reserve are loud, said Don Enders, who lives on nearby Silo Road, and some residents fear for their safety.
"Would you want to live next to a tiger?" Enders said.
Deborah Warrick, the owner and founder of the sanctuary, said her animals are not a disturbance. At her house on the property, the sound of the lion's roar is muffled, she said.
A rule passed in 2007 prohibits having Class I wildlife – inherently dangerous animals such as lions, tigers and elephants – in solely residential neighborhoods. The rule is just one of many new and proposed updates to captive wildlife rules, which are governed by the state.
The goal is to strengthen regulations to prevent exotic animals from further hurting Florida's ecosystem, and keep the exotic animal trade better in check.
Reserve meeting standards
The reserve, on Farm Creek Road just off Pacetti Road, has passed all inspections and the cages exceed requirements for size and strength, according to records provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Animals seized by FWC from other homes that were abusive or not properly permitted have been placed there.
Warrick said Enders, who has owned his parcel for decades but recently built a house on it, has resurrected an issue that had been settled long ago.
"It's been peaceful here for eight years," she said. "We're doing a service to the state."
Enders – and at least three other neighbors who agree with him – hasn't been to the reserve. But they believe it doesn't belong in their neighborhood, which consists mostly of 5-acre plots, dotted with trees and horse pastures. Enders has complained to various agencies, including the FWC, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and the county code enforcement department.
What he found: Warrick is abiding by all county and state regulations.
The reserve's land is zoned open rural, said James Acosta, supervisor of code enforcement for St. Johns County. Despite that, a school, golf course and suburban subdivision are nearby, a product of rapid development in northern St. Johns. Acosta said the county has not received complaints about the other wildlife owners in the county, which has a handful of exhibitors and wildlife rehabilitators.
Even if it were subject to the 2007 rule, Warrick's reserve, which opened in 2000, would be grandfathered in, according to Capt. John West, coordinator of the captive wildlife division of FWC.
Good mission, bad location
As development eats up once-open land, the issue has cropped up more, West said. There's no easy solution.
Ultimately, such issues are bound to grow in Florida, where the combination of climate, growth and regulation make it a haven for wildlife mayhem, said Beth Preiss, director of the exotics campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. The society supports proposals to notify neighbors of Class I wildlife and other stricter regulations.
Barely a week goes by without news from around the state of wild animals – especially reptiles – that are injured, seized or found on the loose. When they are captured, they are either euthanized or sent to a sanctuary like the St. Augustine Wild Reserve.
Even the unhappy neighbors mostly agree with the organization's mission, although they don't support its location. The reserve, a tax-exempt charity, keeps animals – mostly cats of various species and sizes, as well as wolves, lemurs and birds – from a variety of backgrounds. Some are castoffs from the entertainment industry, others are unwanted pets. Two of the leopards are missing a leg.
Warrick supports strengthening captive wildlife regulations, including moving cougars, which are present at the reserve, to the Class I, or inherently dangerous, classification that prohibits them as pets.
And she would support stricter proposed record-keeping for those who breed and sell big cats or use the babies for photo opportunities. Members of an advisory group say tiger cubs have been warehoused or euthanized after they grew too big for such purposes.
"I don't think the state should be lax in regulating dangerous animals," Warrick said.
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This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/092308/met_335431715.shtml.
Jennifer Hobgood, Ph.D.
Florida State Director
The Humane Society of the United States
1624 Metropolitan Circle Suite B
Tallahassee, Florida 32308
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Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
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