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Wolves and coyotes at Southwest Wildlife facing uncertain future as lawsuit against conservation center looms

3/30/16

Elizabeth Medora
Staff

SCOTTSDALE – The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center is facing a lawsuit that could have serious ramifications for the wildlife preservation work of the center.

Many different wildlife species call SWCC home. Some, like Tocho the mountain lion, are animals who were born in the wild, then kept in captivity and are unable to live in the wild again. Others, like Heavenly the bear, got too friendly with humans for everyone’s safety. Bella the bobcat was orphaned as a kitten and suffers from scoliosis, making her a permanent sanctuary resident. Then there are the coyote and wolf residents. Coyotes that have been injured and need rehabilitation or have been kept as pets and need to become sanctuary animals aren’t accepted at many refuges; SWCC cares for them when possible. SWCC is also part of the Mexican Gray Wolf recovery program, helping to care for this rare subspecies and keep the population from going extinct.

Those coyote and wolf residents may be out of a home, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by a neighbor. Dr. D. Seth Gortler has filed a complaint against SWCC, in his name and in the name of his limited liability company, alleging damages caused by roadway damage, dust, and noise, specifically the noise caused by what’s referred to in the complaint as “The Canids.”

Gortler’s complaint states that when he purchased his residence in 2012, he was “unaware that any such noise from the Canids would be coming from the SWCC Property at night.” The complaint further states that the “vocalizations from the Canids at SWCC cause serious disruption to Dr. Gortler’s ability to sleep,” despite his attempts to mitigate the noise through sound-insulating shutters and curtains.

“In May 2015, Dr. Gortler also expressed to SWCC his willingness to make a generous donation to SWCC to assist in the relocation of all noise-producing animals away from the SWCC property,” reads line 64 of the June 2015 complaint.

Relocating “all noise-producing animals” hasn’t been a viable solution for Southwest Wildlife.

“We don’t have funds, we don’t have land purchased, so we don’t have any place to move them to,” said Director Linda Searles. Moving the animals’ enclosures to a different section of the SWCC property has been considered, but it’s cost-prohibitive and likely ineffective for noise control. According to Searles, SWCC has also sought an estimate on constructing a 15-foot sound wall on the southern and eastern sides of the property, but, again, it’s costly, as well as problematic to construct.

SWCC was established in 1994; Gortler acquired his first properties in the vicinity in 2012.

SWCC’s filed answer to Gortler’s filed complaint notes that Gortler acquired his properties “long after SWCC was established on the property owned by Linda Searles.”

“Gortler knew he was purchasing property in the vicinity of SWCC, he knew SWCC’s mission, and he knew that there were canids on the property,” the answer states in paragraph 61.

In 2015, 15508 E. Lomas Verdes LLC acquired three additional parcels of land. Gortler is listed as the sole member of this organization.

“Gortler, as the sole member and manager of 15508 LLC, knew at the time of that purchase that the properties were in the vicinity of SWCC, knew SWCC’s mission, knew that there were canid on the property, and knew that wolves and coyotes vocalize,” SWCC’s answer further states.

“The lawsuit asks not just to remove the wolves and coyotes from the Center – ceasing its work with the Mexican grey wolf program, and leaving SWCC with about 2 dozen coyotes that will have no other home, they can’t be released into the wild and there is no space for them at zoos or other sanctuaries, that’s why SWCC was founded – but also to stop all public activities at SWCC,” said Sam Coppersmith of Coppersmith Brockelman PLC, who is representing Southwest Wildlife in this legal action. “Tours and education are part of the mission of SWCC, and without the visibility and support from the public, the Center won’t be able to afford to keep these animals, which will have no other place to go.”

SWCC is now seeking a Special Use Permit from Maricopa County to continue the center’s educational programs. The application for the Special Use Permit is currently under consideration by the county.

“If we don’t get the Special Use Permit, we will not be allowed to do our educational programs and tours, causing loss of the revenue that helps to supports the center, the Mexican wolf program, and our wildlife rehabilitation work,” Searles said.

Gortler’s suit alleges damage caused by dust; the complaint states that the activities of SWCC and its visitors have caused “unreasonable amounts of airborne dust to enter into and settle upon the Gortler Properties and the 15508 Properties.”

“By knowingly causing the intrusion of such dust onto the Gortler Properties and 15508 Properties, Defendants have committed a trespass thereupon,” reads paragraph 96 of the complaint.

In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit against SWCC seeks to close the area where the canids are kept, require SWCC to maintain 156th St. from Rio Verde to Redbird, and prevent the center from keeping canids “or any other animals prone to making excessive noise at the SWCC property.”

“If he gets what he’s asking for, the Center won’t be able to operate and the wolves and coyotes face a very uncertain future without the Center,” Coppersmith said.

No trial date for the lawsuit has yet been set; the case is currently in the discovery phase.

So far, the majority of public response has been in SWCC’s favor. A petition created by a supporter who lives in the surrounding area that represents “whole-hearted support for the continued operation of the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center” has garnered 164,405 supporters, as of March 29. See the petition at www.thepetitionsite.com/634/101/504/neighborhood-support-for-the-southwest-wildlife-conservation-center. Supporters have also sent letters of support for SWCC to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

“The support from the community has been absolutely overwhelming,” Searles emphasized. “It’s truly amazing.”

See more about Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center at www.southwestwildlife.org.