Menagerie a Menace? City to Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walk through the front gate of Nicholas Amodio's Laguna Hills home and you're likely to be greeted by Bonnie, a 400-pound American alligator.

Stroll deeper into the yard, under a canopy of eucalyptus, and chances are Clyde, Amodio's other 400-pound gator, will be there dozing. Take a few more steps, and you'll see Amodio's aviary, where the caws, chirps and squeaks from his collection of 100 or so exotic birds create a symphony, punctuated by the periodic cluck of his two honey-colored chickens.

But this menagerie, 28 years in the making, may end abruptly if the Laguna Hills City Council denies Amodio's application for an exotic-animal permit. The council will decide during a public hearing tonight.

Amodio began his "family" of alligators, birds, turtles and pigs while his neighborhood was still under county jurisdiction, which allows exotic pets, provided that their home meets certain criteria. And--in the county's eyes--Amodio's did.

But the rules changed three years ago when Amodio's Savona neighborhood was annexed by Laguna Hills. Under city law, Amodio can keep only 10 birds, his turtles and his two pigs--400-pound Bubba and 250-pound Lulu.

The gators, and many of the birds, would have to go.

The city might never have known about the 59-year-old resident's exotic zoo if not for the dozen or so wild peafowl that settled on his property last fall.

"They liked this area because of the high trees, and nobody bothered them," Amodio said.

But they bothered the neighbors, who began complaining to City Hall about the piercing noise the birds made. And they also mentioned the alligators, and the big pigs, and the many birds. And then, one day, the city paid Amodio a visit.

"He has created a very unique environment, there's no doubt about that," said Laguna Hills Planning Director Vern Jones, who denied Amodio's application for the permit--a decision Amodio has appealed to the council.

"He has a lot of mature trees there . . . and then right inside the fence, he's got an alligator and a pond in what would normally be the frontyard."

Jones said he had no choice but to deny Amodio a permit because he had more exotic animals than city law allows. Only the City Council can make an exception.

"When that area was annexed into the city, it was subject to all existing rules and regulations of the city," Jones said. "It wasn't automatically grandfathered in. That's a decision the council will have to make."

Amodio, who--discounting his pets--lives alone, said that if he loses, he'll have to sell most of his prized birds.

"I could sit out here for hours," Amodio said as he strolled through his 100,000-cubic-foot aviary.

The hardest parting would be saying goodbye to Bonnie and Clyde, the gators he's raised since they were hatched. He worries they might have to be destroyed.

"I got them when they were still in eggs," Amodio said. "When they hatched, they saw me."

Amodio hopes the state Department of Fish and Game would provide the gators a home for a year or two--long enough for him to build a house in San Diego County where his zoo can grow again.

"I own 10 acres in Fallbrook," Amodio said. "It's got a 2-acre lake and a 1-acre lake--the gators will think they've died and gone to heaven. So I just need to buy some time."

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