By Brian D. Bridgeford
ROCK SPRINGS — Twenty-four lions, tigers and leopards could have a new home as early as May after Village Board members approved Jeff Kozlowski’s plan for a big cat refuge Monday.
Big cat advocate Kozlowski, village resident Harlan Behnke and other members of the newly-formed Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and Education Center non-profit organization met with board members to present their plan for the cat sanctuary and education center. The group has been trying to get permission to create the center on land former village President Dorothy Coens owns on the north edge of the community.
Kozlowski operates a refuge on Highway 136, east of the village, and Sauk County brought legal action against him in September saying he is violating zoning laws and a county large animal ordinance. He and supporters want to move the cats to a place where county zoning rules don’t apply, like Rock Springs.
Rescue members presented documents requested by trustees during last month’s meeting, including copies of the group’s articles of incorporation, a business plan and a rough design of the refuge.
Behnke pressured board members to decide Monday whether they would allow construction of the cat refuge. “We need some assurance from the village we will have a working relationship before we buy the land,” he said. “Is there sympathy from the village to have a big cat refuge up there?”
Trustee Robert Mears said projected revenue in the group’s business plan is a little high. Kozlowksi said he has many private donors, and will receive even more donations when the refuge actually opens.
At last month’s meeting Kozlowski said he received an offer of $500,000 from an anonymous donor. During Monday’s meeting, he referred to the money as a loan from a backer in Louisiana.
The refuge will get a lot of public interest when it opens and he can charge admission, said Linda Davis, a refuge board member and resident.
Board members also expressed concern about the safety of the cages. Kozlowski said they will be built of concrete panels specifically designed to hold the animals and the enclosures would be welded together. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials will have to certify the enclosure and it would also include an 8-foot high perimeter fence topped with barbed wire.
“We will meet USDA standards,” Davis said, “But we will go above and beyond.”
Trustee David Valek questioned whether the board could really give approval to the refuge that night. He suggested the village’s 1940’s-era zoning rules may not authorize a permit to create an exotic animal refuge.
Village President Charles Kissack said it would be better to hold a formal public hearing, that way neighbors of the property would be notified of the potential action and could express their concerns.
Some neighbors in the audience spoke up saying they like the idea of the refuge, but also said they know of residents who don’t.
Refuge supporter Trustee Duane Neises and a former skeptic, Trustee Edward Buck, made the motion to issue the permit. Also supporting the decision were trustees Jamie Busser and Robert Mears. Kissack and Valek opposed the decision.
Because there was debate about whether village zoning laws allow the permit, officials will consult with their attorney who was not at the meeting. Kissack cautioned Kozlowski they would have to rescind or modify the decision if the attorney doesn’t give final approval.
Kozlowski said he is happy with the result. He hopes to begin construction of the refuge when warmer weather allows him to place pipes in the ground in March. With the help of volunteers he expects to open the refuge in May.
“Finally,” Kozlowski exclaimed in relief as he left the meeting hall. “I can move them. Sauk County should be happy,” he said.
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