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Survival Possible for Wildlife Waystation

L.A. County and animal refuge officials are close to signing a pact that should keep the site from shutting down for good.

June 07, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

In the end, it was a pretty simple way to resolve an ugly situation.

After a couple of important people took a brisk, 40-minute walk, the chance of survival for the ailing Wildlife Waystation and its 600 animal inhabitants has vastly improved.

Efforts to resuscitate the 160-acre sanctuary have faltered in recent months because a regulatory Catch-22 stands in the way of badly needed fund-raising. The facility, in the Angeles National Forest, near Tujunga, was closed to the public two years ago and barred from accepting new animals because of long-standing health and safety violations.

But waystation and Los Angeles County officials are preparing to sign an agreement next week, cutting through the red tape that threatened to permanently shut down the 27-year-old facility.

"This is a new beginning for the Wildlife Waystation," said Robert H. Lorsch, a Los Angeles philanthropist who agreed 18 months ago to try to rescue the refuge for sick and homeless wild creatures, which include lions, bears, chimpanzees, eagles and ostriches.

"Now we can return to the important task of raising funds to assure the continued operation of the waystation," he said, noting that the waystation's food bill alone is $2,000 a day.

In a significant move, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich said Thursday that the county will not dispute a May 8 court order directing the waystation to build code-compliant cages for about two dozen chimpanzees inhabiting a dilapidated barn. The waystation's state and federal operating licenses were suspended for deficient caging and other violations.

Antonovich's chief aide, Kathryn Barger-Leibrich, confirmed that the county has also agreed to fast-track the waystation's application for a critically needed land-use permit. And in another key concession, she said, the county is modifying its ban on all visitors to allow potential big-ticket donors to go to the site and see the changes brought by more than $1 million in improvements to cages, the waste-treatment system, veterinary-care facilities, the water supply, fire protection and other once-substandard aspects of the nonprofit compound.

Not everyone sees a rosy picture. Victoria Van Camp, a longtime waystation critic and former volunteer, is skeptical that the public and the animals are well-served by the pending agreement.

"I'm not persuaded that anything has improved at the waystation," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars [in donations] have come in there, and they've been out of compliance for years."

But Lorsch disagrees. "The place sparkles," he said. "There are no pending complaints I'm aware of from any private contributor or foundation over how we use our funds."

The waystation, which cared for several thousand animals annually before its licenses were suspended and was thought to be the largest facility of its type in the nation, has seen its problems multiply because of contradictory regulatory requirements.

The county barred the refuge from building new chimp housing, which was ordered by the state Fish and Game Department, because a local land-use permit had expired. By last fall, the chimp cage was the only significant violation still outstanding. But the soonest that county employees said they could finish processing a new land-use permit was mid-2004.

County regulators said that without a permit, the facility could not build the chimp cage. State and federal regulators said that without a chimp cage, they could not issue a license and allow visitors. The waystation said that without visitors, there would be no way to raise the several million dollars needed to get back in the good graces of regulators.

That's where that brisk stroll came in.

County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, whose office is supervising the waystation's compliance with health and safety regulations, conducted an informal inspection in January. He said he was impressed by what he saw: tidy cages, well-fed animals, cleanup of waste-polluted areas in progress.

He told The Times he saw no reason to shut down the refuge and viewed it as a much-needed county resource that seemed to be mending its ways.

Shortly afterward, he filed court papers endorsing the waystation's request for a court order directing the chimp cages to be built. Judge Floyd Baxter granted the order, but a senior county attorney said it would probably be contested.

That obstacle crumbled two weeks ago when Antonovich also took a stroll through the grounds and was favorably impressed.

"Mike came back to the office and said, 'Enough is enough.... If they've got a court order, why are we not honoring it?' " recalled his aide, Barger-Leibrich.

Antonovich said Thursday that his goal is to give the animals "homes that meet their needs" and to reopen the facility for public tours as soon as possible. "Our office was instrumental in clearing the logjam," he said.

If all goes as planned, the waystation should have its land-use permit by the end of the year.

Lorsch, who made his fortune in marketing and serves on the boards of several educational and nonprofit organizations -- including the California Science Center and the anti-drug DARE program -- said convincing decision-makers that the waystation had cleaned up its act became an enormous task. He said he has spent about 20 hours a week since early 2002 meeting with officials, telling the waystation's story and dealing with government agencies.

But the effort was worth it, he said: "I am looking forward to working hand in hand with county officials to get the waystation back on its feet."

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