Wildworks Refuge Threatened with Eviction

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After 25 years in Topanga, The Nature of Wildworks, a beloved wild animal sanctuary, may be forced to move, the result of a citation issued by the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control against the animal refuge regarding zoning in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Being forced out of the Canyon would mean saying farewell to Cliff the Mountain Lion; Bobby the Bobcat; Boxer the Serval; the red and grey foxes, owls, hawks, and even Fidel Kestrel, who has delighted countless schoolchildren for years.

It also may mean the end of invaluable outreach and education programs that teach the public and school children about wild animals and their care.

Mollie Hogan, Founder and Executive Director of The Nature of Wildworks and a former zoologist, has issued a public appeal to the Topanga community for donations and support, as she may soon have to pack up and relocate her menagerie of domestic and wild animals.

“Wild animal zoning is A2, Topanga is A1,” Hogan explained via email. “We are unable to get a variance of any kind, for no good reason. They will say that they have given us enough time to move and that’s that. All I asked of them was a few more years so all the animals would pass and then we could terminate or decide on something else, but they need us out right now.”

Hogan says she has been looking for a more permanent space to offer public outreach, house the animals, and provide more educational facilities.

“We have been endlessly searching for an appropriate place to relocate for literally 20 years with no positive response from any county, city, state, or government agency where an educational wildlife center could be a huge asset,” she wrote. “We have been aware of this problem for quite a while and have not been idle here just waiting for the axe to fall. We’ve tried everything to comply and no one is on our side.”

In response, Don Belton, Public Information Officer for the County of Los Angeles Animal Care and Control, issued a statement that said they were unable to provide comment due to the fact that this is an open investigation.  

Hogan again expressed disbelief that this issue would arise at this time, likely in response to the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, considering that the Wildworks has successfully evacuated all of its animals twice during fire danger.

“I’m not sure why such a negative focus is being directed at a little wildlife center that has been in service to the area for 25 years,” Hogan wrote. “If the County took all the energy that it’s using up on shutting down a non-profit rescue and put it toward the unbelievably over-crowded County animal shelters or the many other forms of animal neglect or abuse that go on around us then they might have something to be proud of. As it is—they should be ashamed of themselves.” 

 

THE NATURE OF WILDWORKS

According to their website, The Nature of Wildworks, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), was founded by Hogan in 1995 to bring to life her vision of providing interactive wildlife educational programs to enhance the public’s understanding of nature and the environment, while also ensuring lifetime quality care for non-releasable wild animals.

Located in Topanga, the Wildlife Care and Education Center in Topanga provides a home and care for more than 50 animals, mostly species native to California, who were either displaced from zoos, confiscated illegally owned “pets,” or rescued orphaned or injured wildlife.

“The Nature of Wildworks has a two-fold mission,” Hogan writes. “One is to provide lifelong quality care for non-releasable wild animals. This means plenty of love and attention as well as the employment of various enrichment techniques to keep the animals stimulated and entertained. Secondly, The Nature of Wildworks strives to build public respect and concern for native wildlife and the California environment through student programs that meet California school’s curriculum mandates.”

 

MALIBU WINES AND STANLEY THE GIRAFFE

The animals at Wildworks may not be the only ones threatened by the County. Malibu Wines’ Saddlerock Ranch has also come under the scrutiny of Animal Care and Control, especially with regard to Stanley the Giraffe, the star attraction on their Malibu Wine Safaris.

When contacted, Malibu Wines did not return our calls and the County said they were unable to comment on the issue as it is currently an open case.

Stanley attracted attention when it was revealed that the winery and ranch owned by Ronnie Semler did not evacuate its animals during the deadly Woolsey Fire. Topanga resident, animal activist and comedian Whitney Cummings was outspoken in her criticism of the decision. She visited the ranch immediately after the fire to check on the animals and posted a photo on Instagram of Stanley, safe in a fenced pasture. “They lost all their structures, but all the animals are alive right now,” she wrote.

Stephen Klause, DVM, a veterinarian who works with the animals at the ranch, issued a public statement online about the Animal Care at Saddlerock Ranch: “On the evening of Friday, November 9, [2018], fire from the combined Woolsey Malibu Fires swept across Saddlerock Ranch, destroying Malibu Wine Safari. Ranch personnel received minimal time notification (a little more than two hours) that the fire was likely to move over their area. This small window of time given to ranch personnel was due to the speed that the fire was moving because of the 50-70 mph Santa Ana winds. The ranch staff immediately instituted the planned fire protocol that was in place for just such an occurrence.

“All of the exotic and domestic animals plus boarding horses were let out into the wide-open central area that is contained with many fenced-off pastures. This area has no trees or brush, but consists of short grass, dirt and a lake area. This barren enclosure has little to no ‘fuel’ to power a fire or facilitate the spread of one.”

According to Klause, the animals sheltered in place included horses, the giraffe, llamas, and zebras.

“There are over one hundred exotic and domestic animals in addition to dozens of boarding horses on Saddlerock Ranch,” Klause wrote. “As a veterinarian with 33 years of experience, the fire protocol of moving the animals into the central area was the most prudent and realistic plan to get the animals to safety.

“Exotic animals cannot simply be haltered and moved onto a trailer and off of the property [because] the majority of them require anesthesia and major lifting capability to do so. It would take weeks to move a collection of that size and animal type, which in itself, would be an extreme risk to some of the animals. The staff did an amazing job in a very short period of time to accomplish this feat.”

 

ARIZONA, ANYONE?

Wildfire is exactly why the County may require The Nature of Wildworks and Stanley the Giraffe to move outside of the Santa Monica Mountains.

If Hogan loses the case and The Nature of Wildworks has to move, she said they would relocate to an area outside of Sedona, Arizona, that would allow for larger animal enclosures.

“If our brave but high-risk move to Arizona doesn’t work out, the Wildworks animals will be placed in ‘good homes,’” Hogan wrote. “They just won’t be homes where they want to live.”

The Nature of Wildworks is asking for support. If you want to help the animals, please contact Natureofwildworks.org  or call (310) 455-0550.

 

Wildworks Needs You Now, More than Ever

Dear Friends of Wildworks:

Big changes are coming for The Nature of Wildworks.

For more than 25 years, our Wildworks Wildlife Care and Education Center has been housed in Topanga Canyon, where we care for approximately 50 animals, provide on-site education, and deliver more than 100 awareness programs across Southern California each year.  We are permitted and regulated by several government agencies that oversee animal health and safety. 

However, we have been unable to remedy one important glitch in our operation: to obtain a zoning variance from the County of Los Angeles at our current site. Although we have pursued a variance and other options for being in compliance for many years, the County has never come through.

I was recently told in a meeting with Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control officials that due to the recent fires in the area, and the attention drawn to animals at other facilities that could not be evacuated, the County has now decided to force us to relocate all of our wild and exotic animals. They have suggested that we send the animals away to other facilities. For all of us at Wildworks, the people, and the animals, this would be devastating.  

Their decision has nothing to do with the operation of Wildworks. We run a professional organization with a staff of graduates from the Moorpark College Teaching Zoo, and a perfect public safety record. We have also evacuated all of our animals safely, twice, during fire danger. We provide lifetime care for non-releasable wildlife— many of which were brought to the Center for us to care for from County animal shelters.

In spite of this commitment to animals and to community service, all of our restricted species of birds and mammals are being forced out.

I have been working with the County to extend our time here. I submitted a letter from our long-time veterinarian, Dr. Gary Latos, stating that the transfer of many of the animals here that are old and compromised would be inhumane and possibly life-threatening. I overheard a county representative say, “We don’t care. We just want those animals out of there.”   

We have tried for over a decade to identify a new home for Wildworks in the Santa Monica Mountains and beyond. Through innumerable discussions with City, County, and State Park representatives, as well as searching for property to purchase, we have explored every option for staying here, without success. Unless something unexpected (miraculous) occurs, Wildworks will be leaving California, and relocating near Sedona, Arizona, because as much as we would like to stay, our immediate concern is the well-being of the animals

The location near Sedona is ideal in many ways. The site offers a home, larger grounds, options for larger enclosures for the animals, and supportive government agencies and local residents. We will truly miss our friends and events in the Santa Monica Mountains, but I am determined to continue to care for the animals and share them with people as we’ve been doing here for the past quarter-century.

This is an extremely difficult time. We need your support now more than ever as the expense of creating the Best of the Wild Center, which includes modifications to the property, large wildlife enclosures, and the relocation of all of our animals, falls on the Nature of Wildworks and our valued supporters.

So, my friends, it’s up to you. You’ve helped us in the past and we are counting on you now, more than ever. We have limited time. Our animals need your support.

Please Donate Now: natureofwildworks.org; (310) 455-0550. Make checks payable to: The Nature of Wildworks, P. O. Box 109, Topanga, CA 90290.

 

Yours truly,

Mollie Hogan/Executive Director

 

Annemarie Donkin
Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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