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The owners of a controversial exotic animal sanctuary in the Small Farms subdivision has filed a request for a special exception to zoning regulations to allow them to keep the lion, tiger, bear, two chimpanzees they have on the property.
That comes on the heels of Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks, County Attorney Anne Bast Brown and a number of residents in the area of the exotic animal operation attending a state Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Crystal River to protest the licensing of such operations in residential areas of the county in violation of a zoning ordinance.
Dr. Susan Billiar, a veterinarian, and her husband Brian Davis, moved the animals to their home on about 7 acres in March, touching off protests from neighbors, including a mother with a 3-year-old child and another on the way whose bedroom is about 250 feet from the big cats’ exercise cage.
The county’s zoning ordinance requires exotic animals be located at least a quarter mile from residential areas. The requirement was approved after the commission received complaints about two years ago regarding the licensing of an exotic animal operation in a residential area of Otter Creek.
No date has been set for the County Planning Commission to consider the application, but it will likely be at 6:30 p.m. Monday, August 3 at the County Courthouse in Bronson.
The county commission has been in a verbal standoff over the issue of exotic animal licensing with the FWC. The state agency derives its power to regulate wildlife from the Florida Constitution, which also gives counties power over zoning and development.
“I thnk we made some headway there,” Commissioner Rooks said after the meeting a week ago with the state agency’s board.
“They (FWC Commission) told Col. Julie Jones to have some of their people get with us and bring back a resolution.” Jones is head of the FWC law enforcement division.
Rooks said the group trying to schedule a meeting for us in July so the county and state officials can start talking this out
She commended Brown’s presentation to the board. “They listened to us and Anne gave them some ideas of how this could be handled for Levy County because we’re interested in the zoning aspect of it and I think they’re going to try to work this out with us”
Rooks said, “She told them that the way she interprets the constitution is that we have self-governing powers and zoning falls under the powers the counties and municipalities have.”
The commissioner said she feels it’s a positive sign that the FWC is willing to look at things
Rooks said Morriston resident Mika Vuto, whose home is closest to the animals, also addressed the commission. “She got a lot of applause from all around the room…she did a good job and kept it brief and to the point explaining what her situation was.”
Vuto brought the exotic animal sanctuary to the county commission’s attention at a May 19 meeting. She said the bear and the big cats were moved to Southeast 192nd Court in March and were housed 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 around the lion, tiger and bear cages. They are also installing an enclosed cage for the chimpanzees which are being housed in a trailer cage.
“Same thing you’d have on a prison,” said owner Brian Davis, of the lion and tiger fence.
Billiar, a vet with an office in Marion County, said, “It’s a sanctuary for retired animals and we want to open it up for Levy County school children to visit.
She was upset that the discussion was held at the May 19 county commission meeting without being notified. “It was kind of one-sided. We have all the proper permits and such. 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. She also said that under the regulations they are to have as little human physical contact as possible.