Animal conservation center fights to stay open amid neighbor scrutiny

Leonardo during a check-up at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (submitted photo)

The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center offers services such as medical care to large animals. (submitted photo)

The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center — the only accredited center in Arizona with facilities to take care of large animals — received approval at a May 5 Planning and Zoning hearing for a special use permit needed to keep the center operating.

The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the permit without debate as part of its consent agenda as no one appeared in opposition. There is a 15 calendar day window for appeals to the County Board of Supervisors. If no appeal is filed, the Board of Supervisors would approve the permit as a formality on a consent agenda at a future meeting, according to a press release.

SWCC supporters at the May 5 hearing (submitted photo)

SWCC supporters at the May 5 hearing (submitted photo)

The hearing stems from one complaint to Maricopa County and a subsequent lawsuit by the same individual against the non-profit center, who has threatened its ability to operate. A special use permit from Maricopa County would enable the SWCC to conduct tours and youth camps that are essential to its financial survival.

The first step in that process is approval from the Maricopa County Planning and Zoning Commission. Another vote on the permit is expected in June from the Board of Supervisors.

The complaints are from a neighbor who moved next door several years ago, notwithstanding the SWCC had been in existence for about 20 years prior to his arrival. The center is on county land, and the neighbor lives about 300 feet away, according to Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center director Linda Searles.

In late February, supporters of the center started an online petition that has thus far generated more than 200,000 online signatures in support around the globe, including 14,000 in Arizona, according to a press release.

All neighbors around the center, except one, has signed the online petition supporting the conservation center, Ms. Searles said.

Having a special use permit is crucial to the operations of the center, proponents say.

“It is critical for the center’s survival,” said Ms. Searles in a May 3 phone interview. “It will allow us to resume tours, and it is critical for keeping funding operational.”

The conservation center offers educational and scheduled tours. (submitted photo)

The conservation center offers educational and scheduled tours. (submitted photo)

The center offers pre-scheduled tours, with a maximum of 20 guests per tour, according to the center’s website. The website recommends a donation of $25 per person for Walk with Wildlife Tours, or a suggested donation of $30 for sunrise and sunset tours.

“It will be devastating to us financially. It is how we drive funds, through donations through tours,” said Ms. Searles.

“We wouldn’t be able to have kids’ summer camps. Prior, we were doing a lot of inner-city programs for kids. It’s sad that they won’t be able to come out and experience wildlife.”

The center is the only accredited wildlife sanctuary in Arizona with the facilities to care for large animals, such as bears, lions and wolves. In addition, the center houses coyotes, deer, jaguars and javelina, among other animals. Currently, the center is housing 16 Mexican Gray Wolves that belong to the federal government. The endangered species is part of a reintroduction program, Ms. Searles said.

Not all animals who come to the center can survive in the wild. Some have injuries, while others have been kept as pets and have imprinted on, or habituated to humans.

In order to be accredited by the American Sanctuary Association, the center must not utilize animals for commercial purposes or buy, sell, trade or breed animals.

Profits from the scheduled tours go toward paying for medicine for animals, power bills, caretakers and staff.

A baby javalina at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (submitted photo)

A baby javalina at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (submitted photo)

“We do a lot of conservation medicine,” said Ms. Searles. “That’s crucial to learn more about wildlife medicine and how we can better take care of these animals. Most research done has been on domestics.”

In addition to applying for the special use permits, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane says he plans on submitting the issue for council’s approval at an upcoming city council meeting, to support their continuing existence and operation at its current location.

“It’s one of those operations, obviously folks have moved-in around it, but I think there are things that can be done to still maintain it within the neighborhood,” said Mayor Lane during a May 3 phone interview.

“It’s county land, but we think it’s operation is 100 percent consistent with our feelings of land and wildlife and their rescue mission for injured wildlife is something most everyone is behind.”

The conservation center is highly supported by local contributors and donors. In the wake of the recent circumstances the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, a supporter of animal welfare initiatives in Phoenix, donated $10,000 to the center.

“We recognize there may be some things that need to be adjusted or addressed,” said Mayor Lane. “We are hoping it’s not going to lead to any removal from our extended community.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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