Wildlife haven facing death sentence if new law passes

ANACORTES, Wash. -- Located just outside of Anacortes, Predators of the Heart plays home to nearly 100 exotic animals, including 23 wolves and six cougars.

For 15 years, owner Dave Coleburn and his team of volunteers have used the 10 acres as a home for the refuge's traveling road show. But the compound and many of its animals are facing extinction if a new law meant to toughen up Skagit County's animal ordinance is passed.

County commissioners heard 90 minutes of public testimony on Tuesday that was intended to be about the amendment to prohibit the possession of what many consider "dangerous wild animals." But nearly all of the public comment was about how Predators of the Heart is operated.

Coleburn believes the new law is in response to neighbor complaints about safety.

"The issue is he does not take care of the animals as far as getting loose," said neighbor George Hettich. "We have this danger and he's basically allowing the neighborhood to go to pieces."

Coleburn admits over the past 15 years, two foxes and two young wolves have escaped his fenced compound, but he said the animals were discovered and returned without any incident.

The property is in unincorporated Skagit County and is under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff and his staff of animal control officers.

"There have been incidents we've heard about but I don't remember any calls directly from neighbors saying come out there's a dangerous animal in my neighborhood," said Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt.

Brian Carmen lives with his wife and three kids just 300 yards from Predators of the Heart. He's uncomfortable talking about his neighbor, but spoke out because he believes the his children may not be safe.

"He needs to have more regulation to make sure this isn't happening," Carmen said. "Make me feel safe, make my family feel safe and I'm ok with it".

The proposed amendment would expand on the state's restrictions of owning dangerous and exotic animals to include wolf hybrids and cougars, but only in Skagit County.

What may hit Coleburn the hardest is that it would supercede a grandfather clause by the state allowing the possesion of exotic animals if they were on the premises before 2007. That means on Coleburn would have to get rid of most of his collection of animals and reptiles, including the wolves and cougars.

"That could be a death sentence for our non-profit corporation and it could be the death sentence for a lot of animals because there's no place for them to go," he said.

Commissioners say they will make a decision during February 25 meeting.