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Tiny Menagerie Is Told to Find a New Zoo

Times Staff Writer

One thing that bothers the Animal Guys is that they have no idea who ratted them out.

Not that they knew they were doing anything illegal -- until now.

For years, they’ve been openly running their animal operation in the back of an Altadena home, just a stone’s throw from the Angeles National Forest.

Their vans have “Animal Guys” emblazoned on the side.

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But now it looks like they will have to move everything, including the lynx, the bobcat, the python, the fox and the alligator.

All because of a pesky zoning law.

The Animals Guys are David Riherd and Paul Hahn, who together founded the company that, among other things, brings wildlife to classrooms throughout the Los Angeles area.

Their staff and animals also have appeared on the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” a number of Animal Planet episodes, the Discovery Channel and MTV, among others.

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But now Los Angeles County officials are saying the Animal Guys don’t have the right permit to stay in business in the back of a home owned by Riherd’s family, even though they have been there for eight years.

“We honestly don’t know who contacted anyone from the county,” said Hahn, who recently canvassed the neighborhood to see if anyone objected to the menagerie of about 120 animals.

If anyone does, they’re not admitting it.

Neighbor Ani Simonian said she didn’t even know the animals were there. “But I guess there are people who have complained,” said Simonian, a kindergarten teacher who has lived next door for 30 years.

“A lot of homes have been selling around here. It could have been one of them.”

The Altadena neighborhood where this little drama is being played out is filled with expensive homes, manicured lawns, swimming pools and stunning, up-close views of the adjacent San Gabriel Mountains.

The area where the animals are kept contains pens and cages to house the likes of Boomer the Siberian lynx, Rufus the bobcat and Fluffy the alligator, as well as dozens of smaller animals.

Riherd said the Animal Guys began accumulating their menagerie when the two were in college. What began as a small wildlife collection for two biology majors eventually expanded into a business as the demand for animal shows and demonstrations grew over the years.

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Now the two have a staff of 12 biologists, ecologists and animal trainers who bring their live exhibits throughout the Los Angeles area, mainly to schools, but also to birthday parties and company picnics.

Last June, for instance, the Animal Guys appeared at 156 events in the area.

The crisis, Riherd said, began a couple of weeks ago when an animal control officer, along with county zoning employees, paid a visit and said the two didn’t have a conditional-use permit for their small zoo, which is prohibited in a residential neighborhood.

Riherd said that took them somewhat aback, because they believed they had all the necessary permits, including from the city of Los Angeles, California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The permits allowed them to exhibit and care for the animals, which are classified as nondomestic.

“We honestly didn’t know we needed the conditional-use permit,” Hahn said. “This is horse property up here. If we had known, we would have been somewhere else.”

Once the Animal Guys had that bit of information, they hired a lawyer, not necessarily to fight the eviction, but to buy time so they could find an affordable place to relocate.

“All we can ask for is time to find a location,” Riherd said. “We have a limited amount of time, three or four months if we’re lucky. We don’t need structures, we need land.”

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In fairness, the county has hardly made moving the menagerie a high priority.

Alex Garcia, the supervising regional planner for the county, said he would be looking into the case more closely before deciding what action to take with the Animal Guys.

“I’m scheduled to have a closer look tomorrow,” Garcia said.

The Animal Guys, meanwhile, have started looking for more land in the county where wild animals can be kept.

By their rough estimate, it would take about $1 million to find a space similar to what they have in Altadena. They are hoping for contributions through the nonprofit arm of the company.

And they’re looking into possible loopholes as well, including one brought to their attention Wednesday that allows for the rehabilitation of small wild animals in the county.

That already is part of their work.

Meanwhile, Riherd has another theory about who would have ratted them out: animal rights activists who don’t believe in any form of captivity.

But that’s just a possibility. He said their little zoo in Altadena has always been one of the first places neighbors bring visitors, especially children.

“It’s kind of a local attraction,” he said.


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