Zoo plan meets with roars of disapproval

 

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How about a zoo in C-U?

ARTHUR — As Mike Sutherland walks outside his home, he sees acres of farm fields all around him.

And he enjoys the peaceful country view.

"This is why I've farmed here, and lived here all my life," he said, standing outside in a chilly late-March wind.

The 63-year-old Sutherland, who is now retired from farming, may soon have other sights and sounds outside his home.

The land surrounding three sides of his 5-acre property — about 2 miles south of Arthur, along Moultrie County Road 1900 N — is the future site of the proposed Aikman Wildlife Adventure, a zoo and drive-through wildlife park the owners project will draw 40,000 tourists its first year and more than 200,000 annual visitors a decade after it opens.

Surrounded by longtime family farms in an area dotted with Amish-country businesses and horse-drawn buggies, the development has received the blessing of the Arthur Area Economic Development Corp. and Sullivan Chamber and Economic Development, and gotten a thumbs-down from surrounding land owners, the Moultrie County Farm Bureau and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The prospective zoo/park's developer, 30-year-old James Aikman, is pressing ahead.

An Arthur banker and former president of the Arthur Association of Commerce, Aikman said he and his wife have 140 acres of farmland for the venture under contract, with plans to develop 45 acres with a zoo for tourists to walk through and a drive-through area that would initially have such animals as bison, deer, llamas and camels that people could feed through their car windows. Larger predators would arrive in a few years, he said.

Aikman's business website is seeking financial sponsors for such things as a playground, walk-through aviary, gift shop, an African antelope house, four horse run-in buildings and habitats for dozens of animals types, among them flying squirrel, porcupines, kangaroo, serval, bobcat, mountain lion, tiger, hyena, African antelope, lemur, wolf, cheetah, leopard, black bear, grizzly bear, lion, giraffe, hippo, rhino and elephant.

Aikman declined to disclose the price tag on this development, but he did say it would be funded with a combination of loans and investor funding and he's not relying on sponsorships to cover the costs.

Sponsorships would simply be a way to help sponsors get their name out to visitors, he added, and, "it would help us pay it down more quickly."

Moving fast

Sutherland, who began farming family land in the 1970s, said he first learned of the Aikman Wildlife Adventure proposal in January, and saw it begin to move quickly through local government channels. He contacted his Urbana attorney, Kent Follmer, right away, and Follmer is now representing him and 16 others who together own more than 1,000 acres of land in the immediate vicinity of the site and have multiple concerns about safety, animal welfare and the impact on surrounding farms and the environment.

For Sutherland, there's a lot more at stake than his future outdoor view, which, he predicted, will become a big fence.

"Personally, I feel it is unethical to breed a wild animal for the sole purpose that it will remain in a cage all its life or behind a moat," he said.

Sutherland has also raised concerns about the impact of the zoo/park on the drainage tiles running through the property. The drainage system in the area is old, and several-inch rainfalls already leave standing water along the road, he said.

Outside his home, Sutherland points to a grain elevator visible off in the distance and talks about all the harvest-season traffic already in the immediate area.

Some of the surrounding farms also grow canning pumpkins, which requires aerial spraying, he said. Ideally, that should be done at least a quarter-mile away from people and animals for safety's sake, he said.

Between the farms and the proposed zoo/park site, "there isn't any buffer," Sutherland said.

Neighboring landowner Sandi McDonald said the zoo/park would be just 1,200 feet from her and her husband's longtime family farm and what they'd see from their patio.

Aikman said he's planning to fence in the property, which will involve using hundreds of poles standing 10 feet above the ground, but McDonald also has concerns about what will be beyond the fence. Where are the mature trees for shade and other land features for the animals, she wonders.

The land is flat, "like a card table," she said.

Among her other concerns: disinfectants used to clean the cages could end up contaminating the water in area wells.

"They're not going to use paper towels for that," she said. "They're going to squeegee it out. I have a well. It's toxic to me and everybody else who uses well water."

On top of that, McDonald said she worries about the increased traffic from the park that could make the roads more dangerous for horse-drawn buggies, especially when glaring sun leads to poor visibility, and the animal sounds from inside the park that could frighten the horses.

She bemoans the prospect of all that farmland being taken out of production.

"We're in the line of the most fertile land ever, and he's going to destroy it if he's going to have his way," she said of Aikman.

Neighboring land owner Harlan Fabert recalls a time this past winter when he and his son were out working in a machine shed, stepped outside and heard a train from 10 miles away.

"If sound travels 10 miles, I think there's going to be some noise connected to the zoo that my son and his family shouldn't have to experience," he said.

He also has concerns about a possible animal escape that could jeopardize his grandson living a half-mile from the park site, Fabert said.

And if the development gets the projected number of visitors, the road wouldn't be able to handle the added stress and the character of the area would certainly change, Fabert said.

"If you're talking about that kind of traffic, it wouldn't be rural anymore," he said.

Animal concerns

Carney Anne Nasser, legislative counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote to the Moultrie County Board in March to express her organization's "strenuous opposition" to a zoning change allowing a zoo/wildlife park in an agricultural area. She also urged the board to consider the risks that prompted the American Bar Association to pass a resolution in February condemning the private ownership of exotic animals.

"Not only is there no educational value in taking children to see or interact with animals who are maintained in enclosures and settings that bear no resemblance to their natural habitats and deprive them of adequate space and ability to engage in species-specific behaviors, petting zoos and other roadside animal attractions that place animals and people in close proximity present serious public health concerns," she wrote.

There are 5,000-7,000 tigers in the U.S., and fewer than 400 of them are in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets rigorous standards for animal management and care, according to the Humane Society.

Since 1990, more than 300 dangerous incidents involving big cats alone have occurred in 44 states, the organization said, and more than 100 of the animals were killed following attacks and escapes.

Fabert, who currently lives in Sullivan, said his grandson is now the fifth generation to live on the farm property first bought by his grandfather in 1961.

His concerns about the Aikman project didn't originally stretch to the welfare of the animals, he said, but he began to read and learn more, he's come to believe those animals should be left out in the wild.

What's next

The Moultrie County Board is scheduled to take up a change in the county zoning ordinance this week that would create a special land use provision for a zoo and wildlife park.

If that is approved, Aikman would need to apply for a special use permit and have it OK'd before proceeding with his plans.

If the zoning change is approved, some of the conditions for a zoo/wildlife park as a special use would be meeting state and federal requirements and those of the government entity controlling the roads at the entrance to the site, providing adequate parking and drainage, and doing nothing that changes the water flow to the surrounding site or drainage district without a plan approved by the drainage district affected.

Meanwhile, state regulations concerning possession of dangerous animals could become tougher: Legislation (SB 1824) is moving through the state Senate that would restrict possession of dangerous animals (defined as lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, bear, hyena, wolf and coyote) to all but the following: a properly maintained zoological park accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, circus, college or university, scientific institution, research laboratory, veterinary hospital, hound running area or animal refuge.

The law would also specify that an animal refuge is a nonprofit entity providing sanctuary for abused, orphaned and unwanted animals and that refrains from conducting commercial activity involving dangerous animals, using those animals for entertainment purposes or allowing the public an opportunity to come into direct contact with then.

Follmer says the proposed change in Illinois law is part of a major trend fostered by a 2011 animal massacre in Zanesville, Ohio, in which a zoo owner released wild animals from their enclosures before killing himself and dozens of the animals roaming at large had to be shot by local sheriff's deputies.

The attorney has spent months working against the Aikman project, obtaining hundreds of pages of documents (including emails between Moultrie County officials) from the county under Freedom of Information requests.

He's also obtained hundreds of signatures from local land owners objecting to the zoning ordinance change and special use for the zoo/park.

"We have more signatures coming in every day, and we're gong to proceed with filing them Monday or Tuesday," he said.

Follmer has also flooded county officials with reasons to halt the zoo/park project, calling for a feasibility study and traffic analysis. And if the county still approves a zoo/wildlife park as a special use, he has urged attaching another condition requiring the owner to set aside a bond to cover the costs of closing such a facility that goes under.

Parks such as these are difficult to sustain and make a profit, and require year-round staffing, maintenance and care, Follmer pointed out.

The Decatur Park District's Scovill Zoo, for example, is in a city of about 75,000 people and has an attendance of 100,000 a year, he said. How can Moultrie County — with a fraction of that population and no major Interstate highways — expect a zoo in its midst to draw as many or more visitors than those in larger cities, he asked.

And the county could be left to clean up the mess and find new homes for many of the wild animals if the development fails, he warned.

"That has happened around the country on numerous occasions," Follmer said.

More tourists?

The way Moultrie County Board Chairman Dave McCabe sees it, the Aikman zoo/park has potential to boost tourism and help small businesses in the area.

"I think, if it's successful, it would be an economic enhancement to the county," he said. "I think it would bring more people into the county."

The board intends to deal with the proposed change in the zoning ordinance this week, he said, and board members are always free to attach additional conditions to a special use if they want.

"I think any of the concerns that have been expressed so far can certainly be dealt with and taken into consideration," he said.

Bob Doan, community development coordinator at the Arthur Area Economic Development Corp., said the organization voted in March to support the zoo/park as economic development and tourism opportunities.

"I think it would be a big plus for the area," he said.

Sullivan Chamber and Economic Development also sees potential in Aikman's plans, and has been supporting it accordingly, Executive Director Stephanie McMahon said.

Aikman said he and his wife remain confident about their plans.

"Any time someone questions what you're doing, even if you're 100 percent confident, you can't help but go back and re-evaluate it," he said. "We've done that multiple times, and we are confident in the plan, and confident that it can work."

From farmland to zoo

Before there are wild animals roaming Arthur, the Aikman Wildlife Adventure has a few hurdles to clear:

STEP 1: On Thursday, the Moultrie County Board will consider adding a zoo/wildlife park as a special land use under the county zoning ordinance. The change requires seven of the nine county board members to vote yes, because 7 percent of county land owners (2 percent more than necessary) have signed a protest petition, according to opponents' attorney, Kent Follmer.

STEP 2: If the zoning ordinance change is approved, Aikman Wildlife Adventure operator James Aikman's next step would be to apply for a special-use permit.

STEP 3: If the permit is approved, Aikman said he hopes to have the park open by spring 2016.

Lions and tigers and apple butter, oh my!

8

About how many months Aikman Wildlife Adventure would be open a year (March 15 to Nov. 1), seven days a week.

1,158

Likes on the business' Facebook page as of April 2.

$1 million

Commitment sought from a sponsor for an elephant habitat. Several other sponsorships at other financial levels are listed at aikmanwildlife.com.

Reporter

Debra Pressey is a reporter covering health care at The News-Gazette. Her email is dpressey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@DLPressey).