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New Federal Charges Hit Animal Refuge

October 16, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

A troubled animal sanctuary in the Angeles National Forest is facing numerous new charges that it violated the federal Animal Welfare Act by providing unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, staffing the facility with inadequately trained personnel and exhibiting animals to the public without a license.

The nonprofit Wildlife Waystation, which houses about 600 tigers, chimpanzees and other exotic animals on its 160-acre site near Tujunga, could be fined thousands of dollars for violating the terms of a cease-and-desist order that was part of a settlement it reached last year with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a federal complaint filed last month.

On Wednesday, Bob Lorsch, a Los Angeles philanthropist and volunteer consultant to the sanctuary, said the charges were part of a USDA "vendetta" against the facility and its founder, Martine Colette.

Nearly all of the allegations, he said, were false or dealt with problems that have been corrected.

"Today, it's a first-class facility," Lorsch said. "It runs on a first-class basis, [and] the animals are taken care of in a first-class manner."

The complaint, which was filed with the secretary of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., is the latest in a series of recent troubles plaguing the sanctuary for sick and homeless animals. Two years ago, the facility was closed to the public and barred from taking in new animals after other health and safety violations were leveled by the USDA, Los Angeles County and the California Department of Fish & Game, Lorsch said.

The facility's conditional-use permit has also expired, and the Waystation is hoping to get it back early next year, Lorsch said. Its federal license to exhibit animals was pulled in October 2002, preventing it from allowing visitors, which has hindered fund-raising efforts, he said.

In its complaint, the USDA alleged, among other things, that the sanctuary failed to employ a veterinarian who could provide adequate care, exhibited and transported animals without a license, failed to provide adequately trained staff, showed adult tigers and primates to the public "without any distance or barriers" between them and kept primates in "overcrowded and structurally unsound enclosures."

The agency also alleged a number of sanitary issues, including keeping uncovered food on the floor; failing to provide readily accessible washrooms to caretakers; and failing "to control flies" where an injured chimp was kept, allowing the flies to accumulate on the animal's wounds.

The chimp's health needs were not adequately addressed, "despite the animal's severe self-mutilation of his forearms, hands, head and legs resulting in exposure of muscle and tendons in some areas," the complaint alleged.

Marilyn Barrett, an attorney for the sanctuary, called the allegations "spurious" and said she plans to file motions asking for clarification on many of the points raised in the 24-page complaint. She said she has asked federal officials for a hearing.

"Everything's been corrected," Barrett said, except a requirement that the Waystation hire a primate expert. Barrett said candidates are being interviewed for the position.

Also Tuesday, the Wildlife Waystation settled a lawsuit it had filed against the county alleging that prohibitions on media visits to the facility violated its free speech rights.

Under the agreement, the county will allow some visits by media and donors.

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