It's a deceptively simple proposition for the long-troubled Wildlife Waystation: To regain its suspended state and federal licenses, it must move two dozen chimpanzees from an unsafe, decaying cage to a sturdy new one.
The upgraded quarters are partly built and the Waystation is eager to comply. But Los Angeles County officials issued a stop order on the construction. Before work can proceed, a detailed environmental impact report must be done on the 161-acre compound, which houses 500 animals, and a county operating permit must be issued. Without the permit, new construction such as the chimp cage is illegal.
"This is a huge Catch-22," said Robert H. Lorsch, a Beverly Hills philanthropist who agreed last year to take over the reins of the nonprofit refuge in hopes of solving its financial and licensing woes. "The hurdles that have been put in front of the Waystation are so incredible, it's almost like an effort designed to create failure."
Lorsch said the chimpanzee dilemma is part of a thicket of red tape that threatens the survival of the exotic animal refuge, despite significant construction and other repairs that have been made in an effort to regain licenses and permits.
Since its county operating permit expired in March, the Waystation and Los Angeles County blame each other for procedural delays that have blocked the nonprofit center in the Angeles National Forest from accepting additional sick or unwanted wild animals.
"Animals are dying and suffering because we can't take them in," Lorsch said.
Lari Sheehan of the county administrative office said shuttering the 27-year-old facility, which is being allowed to care for its existing animal population, continues to be a possibility because compliance with government standards and deadlines has been slow or nonexistent.
However, a court-appointed mediator said last week that the refuge has made "tremendous" progress in cleaning up unsafe, unsanitary and substandard conditions, and that the county has been guilty of failing to communicate its requirements for the facility to become legal again.
County officials deny causing delays and insist they are simply following the law. "For the last 2 1/2 years, we have told them how to avoid getting in a Catch-22," said Sheehan, who heads a task force of county officials charged with guiding the Waystation through the permit process. "Without having a bona fide conditional-use permit, they are not authorized to have an animal menagerie. Without having that CUP, we can't give them building permits."
The Waystation has cleaned up hundreds of health, sanitation and other code violations cited by local, state and federal authorities, said Gini Barrett, appointed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to mediate safety and sanitation concerns raised by the state Fish and Game Department. Some violations were technical, such as the strength of wire mesh on cages; others concerned health and safety issues, such as animal waste being washed into a streambed, and a perimeter fence with large gaps.
"The biggest issue left is the caging of the chimpanzees," Barrett said. "I'm disappointed that there was not more clarity by the county in 2000 and 2001 as to what their requirements would be.... They said they didn't have an involvement in caging issues. So we went on our way, putting an emphasis on things that had an immediate impact on public safety, like the perimeter fence."
If the county had said the cage would be an issue, "it would have been fixed before the [conditional-use permit] expired," Barrett said. "I would have insisted on it."
"I don't know where she gets her information, but it is not accurate," replied Roberta Fesler, a senior county attorney advising the task force. The Waystation was notified in writing long before its permit expired in March 2002 that the cage construction would be an issue, she said.
She did not know whether state and federal authorities, whose regulations also cover animal cages, were likewise notified. But "as of July 2001, there could be nobody that misunderstood" that the cages would have to undergo county scrutiny, she said.
Meanwhile, Waystation supporters are frustrated and upset, saying they cannot meet a county deadline this month for submitting a crucial environmental impact report because the county has demanded far more detailed information than the Waystation anticipated having to provide.
The Waystation, considered the largest and longest-standing facility of its type in the nation, has given shelter or temporary care to an average of 4,500 animals a year.
Lorsch, 52, who has served as an officer or board member of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., the anti-drug DARE America and the California Science Center, said the clouded future of the rescue center has jeopardized fund-raising efforts because donors are put off.
"We aren't even being allowed to take prospective donors up there and show them all the progress we've made," he said.