An unusual proposal to funnel $300,000 in state funds to a privately owned wild animal refuge in Little Tujunga Canyon has been signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian after rapidly making its way through the Legislature.
The bill, introduced in May by Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette (R-Northridge), is designed to cover extensive improvements to the water supply, sewers, drainage system and roads at the financially strapped Wildlife Waystation.
The 160-acre Waystation, which serves as a temporary home for lost, abandoned or mistreated wild animals, has been in financial trouble since spring, when Los Angeles County officials refused to grant permits for an annual fund-raising party. Officials said the permits were withheld because the refuge was not equipped to handle large crowds.
Martine Colette, owner of the Waystation, officially canceled the fund-raiser two months ago, warning that mounting debts might soon force the refuge into bankruptcy. She said the refuge is funded entirely by donations and staffed by volunteers. It now houses more than 500 non-domestic animals, including more than 100 lions, tigers and other big cats. Other inhabitants range from coyotes and foxes to monkeys and rare breeds of deer.
In a last-minute effort to fund the improvements required by the county, La Follette introduced an emergency appropriation for the refuge, with the aid of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who authorized introduction of the bill well after the Legislature’s March 8 deadline. It was signed by Deukmejian Friday.
La Follette conceded that it was unusual for the state to pay for improvements at a privately owned facility. But, since the Waystation does a lot of business with state and county agencies, she said she thought the financing was appropriate.
“It’s definitely a one-time-only arrangement, and it is not usually done, but the circumstances seem to warrant it,” La Follette said. “The entire state sends animals there. The Waystation is the only place of its kind.”
Specifically, the measure will provide $300,000 from the California License Plate Fund to the California Department of Fish and Game, which will oversee improvements at the refuge. The license plate fund, which is reserved for conservation projects, receives roughly $18 million a year from the sale of personalized license plates.
Since it was created in 1979, the Waystation has been supported by private donations, volunteer labor and money raised at periodic barbecues and fairs. Colette said the station traditionally builds up large debts during the winter, when it buys most of its animal feed on credit. Operating costs are about $25,000 a month, she said.
But last spring, the center ran afoul of its own success, when county officials decided that crowds at the fund-raising events had become too large to be classified as private. Colette said the Waystation’s most recent fund-raiser held in September drew a crowd of about 10,000. Because that fund-raiser had been treated as a private event, Colette was not required to obtain permits from the county.
But, when she made plans for another fund-raiser in May, county officials told her that she would have to improve roadways, sanitation and water supplies at the site or severely limit attendance. At the time, the owner of the refuge described the requirements as a bureaucratic Catch-22, which prevented her from raising money needed to make necessary improvements.
County officials raised several objections, each requiring extensive improvements. Building and safety officials objected to a road and a stage for performers, which they said were built without proper permits. Health authorities insisted that the premises have running water. The Fire Department wanted a limit of 1,000 persons on the grounds, saying that was as many as could be evacuated safely on a two-lane road that approaches the site.
At the time, Colette estimated that the required improvements would cost $350,000. The fund-raiser was canceled when plans to hold it elsewhere fell apart, she said.
On Tuesday, Colette said she was “extremely happy” that the bill to rescue the center had been signed by the governor. She said she had begun meeting with officials from the Department of Fish and Game, in hopes of beginning work on the site by September.
Colette also said that private donations to the refuge had increased substantially in the last several months, enabling the center to pay off a winter food bill of about $50,000.
Colette said the center is now $25,000 in debt. If the improvements proceed as planned, she said another major fund-raiser might be held at the refuge next spring.
Until then, she said, the refuge would struggle to survive on donations and smaller, off-site fund-raising events.
“I know it gets tiring reading about money, money, money,” she said. “But we’ve still got to pay for food.”