In defense of the animals

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Letter to the editor by Mrs. Grace Wegman

By The Staff


My family and I have been volunteering at the Billiar/Davis Sanctuary for several months. We have known Dr. Billiar in a professional capacity for two years. We have also had the honor and privilege of providing foster care for an endangered ape. As you know after one year of age, they can no longer be kept in a private residence. Lucky little ape, he now lives the life of Riley at Sue and Brian’s house.

I don’t profess to know much about truth in reporting, but I certainly know the lack of it when I read it. There’s no way on earth I can let this article go unchallenged. I realize your reporter was only repeating the misinformation and unfounded gossip he heard at this meeting, but here are the verifiable facts. Unchecked hysteria steamrollers the truth every time if allowed.

Beginning with the first sentence, I will address each one in turn: I haven’t measured the distance between the nearest home and the fence that’s erected between the properties, (I hope the guy who measured the distance isn’t the same one doing the land measurements and counting the animals.) For arguments’ sake, I’ll accept 250’. In addition to a regular fence about 4’ high enclosing the nearest neighbor’s horse pasture, the Billiar/Davis property has a 12’ high chain link fence surrounding the big cat enclosure. Unless the three year old is built like an alligator, I seriously doubt she can get in with the cats. The access gate is kept padlocked; the animals are protected from prying eyes by shade cloth. On the subject of child safety…how many sexual predators live in Levy County? Are there any rabid animals roaming their back yard? Does either parent smoke? Has the child received vaccinations? Some believe vaccinations are the causal factor in autism. Has the child had a tetanus shot? Snakes, alligators, bats, wow. Remember the sunscreen, melanoma you know. Genuine danger surrounds every child every day.

The lady who doesn’t want to “live with lions, tigers and bears” really has no problem, don’t visit the sanctuary, as soon as the landscaping is completed, she’ll not be afforded the privilege of watching the animals over her morning coffee anyway. I can guarantee whatever she looks at after that won’t be anywhere near as beautiful as a big cat. Sorry. As for the loud roars she mentions, these cats have experienced such a tremendous improvement in their living conditions, their roars are much more infrequent. In any event, they are of shorter duration and far more pleasant than the loud racing of car engines I’ve heard in that neighborhood. Anyone who has ever seen an MGM movie is well acquainted with the amplified roar of the trademark lion.

Now we come to this meeting of the Levy County Commission. It would seem that word got out to all concerned, except the people critical to the issue. Dr. Billiar and her husband were not advised of the meeting, but all the complainants and the press were. Was this deliberate? Had Sue and Brian been present to state facts in rebuttal to gossip and false information, it would have been beneficial to all present. Mob mentality is an ugly thing. I made a cursory investigation on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site. Look for Rule 68A-6, F.A.C. The third page, (pg.3), top of the page tells where Class 1 wildlife may be housed, and the bottom of the page, City of Miramar v. Bain should help with understanding exactly how much control local authority has in these instances. Page 4, fourth paragraph, first five sentences spells it out plainly. The last page 6, states the conclusion clearly for all. It’s unfortunate the commission is not more familiar with the State Constitution; it’s still not too late.

The Levy County Commission may be prepared to “square off” with the FWC again, but they won’t be the first local government to fail; it will be a waste of money and time. See the above referenced case, etc.

I’m not sure what the ‘neighbor’ who called state officials was complaining about. The fact these valuable animals were under (padlocked) control and in cages? In any case, her complaint about another fence around the property is now moot. As long as she keeps her child under her supervision and prevents her from scaling two fences, one 12’ high, there should be no problem.

Sue and Brian have put a great deal of love and concern in building this sanctuary. The have basically rescued these hapless animals from an unpleasant existence and uncertain future. So very many species have gone extinct in our own lifetimes, we need to preserve as many as we can. Dr. Billiar and her husband Brian have expended thousands of dollars creating a comfortable environment where these valuable creatures can live the remainder of their lives in a protected atmosphere. In addition to providing security for endangered animals, their plans include permitting the school children of Levy County to learn about the consequences of poorly thought out actions on the part of man. Hopefully the children will come away with a lasting respect and concern for the plight of earth’s creatures. This sanctuary will be a valuable asset to Levy County’s education system.

I suggest Commissioner Stevens read the state laws I have referenced. There is no need for any more letters or spurious citations, the State of Florida states clearly, local governments can only affect the building of structures. Pursuing this negative course of action is beginning to take on tones of discrimination and possibly collusion, wasting both the time and resources of Levy County and the animal owners. I can provide a copy of relevant laws if anyone is unable to access the Internet on their own.

At least the article has humor. Some poor soul really needs the services of a good ophthalmologist! Over 100 hundred animals on only 2.5 acres? Wow! This completely false statement is attributed to Commissioner Lilly Rooks; as I’ve never seen her at the sanctuary, I guess she just took someone’s word on this; probably not a good idea for an elected official. Dr. Billiar is completely in compliance with the State of Florida’s laws. If ms. Rooks will go to State Laws for Exotic Cats at www.bigcatrescue.org/laws/statelawsexoticcats.htm the second paragraph should be helpful.

I’ve previously addressed the three-year-old child; parental supervision is the key here. Don’t let her climb the 12’ fence and the tiger or lion won’t be able to eat her. As for “quality of life’ some folks would live to live next to an animal sanctuary caring for creatures on the brink of extinction. The opportunity to see such rare animals on a daily basis would be a great improvement in the “quality of life” for a lot of people.

Commissioner Rooks is again off base when she states there are no solely residential areas in Florida; I live in one. According to Commissioner Rooks’ interpretation, exotic animals can be housed just about anywhere.

Ah, the best one yet, Commissioner Stevens insists “the letter” include the statement that the FWC needs to follow local laws and regulations. I suggest Commissioner Stevens familiarize himself with the State Constitution and the items I noted above. The FWC is in compliance; it’s the local government, which is misinformed as to the scope of its influence. (Miramar v Bain is enlightening.) As for Stevens’ statement about the board putting its foot down, simply removing it from the board’s collective mouth would be an initial step in the right direction.

Despite all the hysteria, harassment, misinformation and possibly discrimination against them, Sue and Brian maintain a positive outlook and hope for good relations with their “neighbors”.

The State of Florida has conducted several inspections of the facility and is very satisfied with the construction and excellent care of these endangered animals. The State will ensure the safety of people in the neighborhood; they have the power to shut down any unsafe installation at any time. On the other side of that coin, these animals should be allowed to live in safety and peace too.

In the interest of impartiality, I hope you will take the time to verify my statements and print the facts.

Mrs. Grace Wegman