More than 100 people packed into the Bigfork High School gymnasium on Friday, May 20, for a public comment session with Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) on a proposed “animal menagerie” seeking a license to operate near Ferndale. FWP extended the comment period until Monday, May 23, after neighbors of the proposed site went wild at the thought of an African lion, several Siberian tigers and a bear—among other species—moving into the neighborhood. The animals are currently caged at Wild Eyes Animal & Photo Adventures, which is closing, in Columbia Falls.
Under the proposal, put forth by the animals’ handler at Wild Eyes, Rod Nelson, the animals would periodically be transported to Evergreen, near Kalispell, for photo shoots.
Tom Litchfield, the FWP wildlife biologist who drafted the agency’s report on the expected impacts of the roadside menagerie, says resistance is “a natural reaction.”
“It’s the same as if you proposed a prison site near where people lived,” Litchfield says.
Comments at Friday night’s meeting centered mainly on safety concerns. Nelson’s proposal includes a perimeter fence as well as interior animal cages—more safety features than the animals’ current Columbia Falls home, which features no perimeter fence.
“We are for safety,” Nelson said at the meeting. “These animals are like our children.”
While most who commented against the proposed menagerie seemed to feel the site would be better located in an area other than their neighborhood, Missoulian participant Rebekah Griffin says she’s against menageries of this kind no matter where they’re located.
“It’s not natural,” Griffin says. “I’m fundamentally against menageries—zoos too, but they at least do a better job of facilitating the animals’ natural habitat.”
Litchfield told attendees that FWP will probably issue a final decision by mid-June. Meanwhile, the “Quote of the Night” Award arguably goes to a Bigfork High School custodian who said, as the meeting spilled into the hallways after 9 p.m., “Excuse me, is it going to interfere with your arguing if I vacuum?”