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Court Allows Cages for Wildlife

Waystation wins an order for completion of chimpanzee enclosures that backers say are needed to help keep the sanctuary from closing.

May 09, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

The Wildlife Waystation won a court order Thursday that the sanctuary's officials hope will help end a long-simmering legal dispute over chimpanzees that has threatened to shut down the troubled home for wild animals.

At issue was where to house 24 chimps, now confined to a dilapidated barn. Waystation officials had hoped to build three new cages for the chimps, but say conflicting state, county and federal regulations have prevented them from completing the work.

The cages are important because building them will help the 160-acre sanctuary regain licenses suspended because of hundreds of health and safety violations cited by state and federal agencies.

Waystation supporters were ecstatic when Superior Court Judge Floyd Baxter approved their request to build the cages after a five-minute hearing in his Newhall courtroom.

"The chimps won," said Bob Lorsch, a Los Angeles philanthropist and volunteer advisor to the sanctuary, which has been teetering on the brink of closing for three years while cleaning up the health and safety violations.

"Now we can move forward to get our licenses back and raise funds to care for the animals," Lorsch said. "Within minutes of obtaining the court order we received a phone call and check from a foundation for $12,000."

The new chimpanzee house is the last major roadblock to regaining licenses for the sanctuary, which is situated in the Angeles National Forest foothills above Tujunga.

The victory may be short-lived.

Roberta Fesler, senior county counsel, said the court order does not change the legal position of county officials, who have refused to permit the chimpanzees to be relocated from a decaying shelter unless the sanctuary obtains county permits for the three large new cages being built a few hundred feet away.

Fesler said the new cages are required by the state, not the county, and she added that county officials were not a party to the legal action Thursday.

If construction of the cages continues, the county will probably issue a stop order and seek criminal prosecution, Fesler said. Waystation officials have labeled the situation a "Catch-22" because they cannot comply with the state without running afoul of county regulators, who say the sanctuary must go through a 12- to 15-month application process for a variety of permits.

The 27-year-old refuge houses about 600 wild animals, including bears, tigers, alligators and eagles, and has long been considered the largest facility of its type in the nation.

The county maintains that moving the chimps to a new home would be illegal without a conditional-use permit for an animal sanctuary. The sanctuary's permit expired more than a year ago while it dueled with the county over technical issues.

Waystation attorneys Marilyn Barrett and Byron Countryman said the request for Baxter to intervene was a last-ditch effort to break the stalemate. Barrett said construction of the cages, halted by the county last summer, will proceed immediately and could be completed in 90 days. "We would be in contempt of court if we did not comply," she said. "I would think the county would have to get a court order to stop it."

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who filed court documents endorsing the court order, praised Baxter's decision. "This is a reasonable solution to what had been a historically insolvable problem," he said. "I believe this ... will provide safety for the personnel and the animals."

Lorsch expressed hope that a new court confrontation can be avoided. "My wish for the animals is that county officials will get together with me and figure out how to turn this into a win-win for the county, the sanctuary and the public."

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