Coffee with the Lions

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Morriston subdivision upset over presence of wild animals

By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

Morriston’s Small Farms subdivision is in an uproar over the location of lions, tigers, bears, apes and monkeys in their neighborhood — with some animals as close as 250 feet to a child’s bedroom.


“I get the pleasure of looking at the lion while I have my morning coffee,” said Neva Riding, who lives across from a lion cage at the animal sanctuary on Southeast 192nd Court.

“If you haven’t heard a lion roar, it’s a pretty big noise,” she said. “I don’t want to live with lions, tigers and bears.”

The Levy County Commission, which heard complaints from residents who packed the meeting room, says it is prepared to square off with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on this issue — again.

About a year ago, the commission discovered — after the fact — that the FWC had licensed an exotic animal operation in a primarily residential area. That operation has since shut down.

The FWC says that it has the sole power to regulate where exotic animals are permitted without regard to local regulations.

Levy County zoning regulations that require exotic animals be kept at least a quarter-mile from the nearest residence in areas zoned for agricultural/rural residential which have been platted for subdivisions like Small Farms.

Mika Vunto said the bear and the big cats were moved to Southeast 192nd Court in March. They were in cages on the property. She said she contacted state officials because there was no fence around the facility.

The owners have since installed a 12-foot chain link fence, even though the rules only call for an 8-foot fence. “Same thing you’d have on a prison,” said owner Brian Davis. Suzanne Billiar, a vet for Silver Springs. “It’s a sanctuary for retired animals and we want to open it up for Levy County school children to visit.

“They had this meeting and we were not invited. It was kind of one-sided. We have all the proper permits and such,” Billiar said. “The big thing is that we did not do this in an intention to draw attention to ourselves, to upset people.”

Billiar said she was just trying to provide a home for the highly endangered species that recently arrived at the farm. They had previously resided at an educational facility, but the owners had health and financial problems rendering them incapable of maintaining them. The FWC had ordered the facility closed and the animals transferred elsewhere in 30 days.

“These animals are all ambassadors for the animals in the wild. This lady really needed someone who could come in and take them. It was meant to be a good thing.”

“These animals will never be taken out of the cages and walked around,” Billiar said. “They do have an exercise area for the lion and tiger.”

Davis said he has lived there for 15 years and has had animals the whole time.

Commissioner Danny Stevens, who led the move to send a stern letter to the animals’ owner, said he understood the property owners have already been cited for violating the zoning ordinance.

County Attorney Anne Bast Brown, who did not advise the commissioners against discussing the citizens’ concerns, did advise the commission to be careful. She said the animal owners are expected to file for a special exception to the zoning regulations. Because the commission has the final say on whether to grant or deny special exceptions, any discussion prior to a public hearing could cause a legal problem.

Nonetheless, the commission went along with Stevens’ motion to send a stern letter to the owners, Dr. Susan Billier and Brian Davis, saying housing the animals is against county ordinances and to remove them.

Brown said the board can make the request, but cannot force their removal.

“This board needs to put its foot down,” Stevens said.

Brown said a code enforcement citation has been issued and the property owners have the right to pay the $30 fine or go to court for a hearing.

There is an attorney general’s opinion that relates to this, but does not come down clearly on which power prevails.

The commission could seek a declaratory judgment in court on who has the power to regulate exotic animal locations.

“It will cost money and it will take time,” Brown said explaining the commission’s options.

“They have 2.5 acres with over 100 animals on it,” Commissioner Lilly Rooks said.

“With a three-year-old child living there (next door), they certainly can’t use and enjoy their home life now,” Rooks said. “The FWC has just taken away their quality of life.”

The only area the FWC does not allow permits for the big cats are those that are “solely residential,” Rooks said. “There’s nowhere in Florida that you are going to find solely residential areas.”

Rooks said the state association of counties has been trying to work out an agreement with the FWC to place restrictions on issuing permits in predominantly residential areas, but have been unsuccessful.

Stevens insisted that the letter include the statement that the FWC needs to follow local laws and regulations. “They need to recognize that we control zoning.”

As for why the commission is not going to court, the answer may have come later in the meeting when Supervisor of Elections Connie Asbell asked for an amendment to her budget to add $33,000 to cover a legal bill and overtime for her office during last year’s general elections.

Asked how much of the money was being spent on a suit by Levy County Journal newspaper publisher A.D. “Andy” Andrews’ suit to have the court declare him a legally registered voter in the city of Chiefland, Asbell had the answer ready: $16,000.

The case was only litigated at the local level. It was not appealed to a higher court.