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More than two dozen testify at 90-minute hearing; Washington County will accept written testimony until Jan. 12 before commissioners resume deliberation Jan. 16.

Washington County commissioners, after hearing more than two dozen people over 90 minutes, will accept only written testimony on a proposed ban on exotic animals.

The filing deadline is 4 p.m. Jan. 12, ahead of continued proceedings at the board's Jan. 16 business meeting. Testimony goes to the board clerk.

The ban on "exotic animals," as defined by state law, drew plenty of comments at a Dec. 19 hearing.

Supporters who testified largely represented animal-rights groups.

Opponents who testified largely were there in support of Walk on the Wild Side, a nonprofit that relocated last spring from Canby to a former horse farm near McKay Creek, south of Sunset Highway and north of Hillsboro.

A county hearings officer is weighing a separate recommendation to impose penalties for land-use violations — which the owners dispute — but Commissioner Roy Rogers said, "this (dispute) is not what this is all about."

State law empowers counties and cities to ban "exotic animals," defined as non-domestic cats and dogs, non-native bears, alligators and crocodiles, and primates. Beaverton has such a ban.

The proposed ban is not a land use regulation, but intended for health and safety.

"This ordinance seeks to address the safety of our residents and the humane treatment of our animals by prohibiting the keeping of exotic animals while allowing certain reasonable exceptions," said Marni Kuyl, county health and human services director.

Among them, she said, are the Oregon Zoo — which is in Portland's Washington Park, and outside Washington County — and the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton.

There is no proposed exclusion for pre-existing uses.

As of the close of business Dec. 19, Kuyl said, the county tallied 74 calls or emails in support and 16 against it.

"While voluntary compliance with the code would prevent the need for any enforcement action, we have sufficient resources to address any enforcement action that may become necessary," Kuyl said.

Brad Anderson, an assistant county counsel, said Beaverton has a similar ordinance and Hillsboro a partial ban.

What supporters say

Support for the proposed ban was voiced by leaders from three animal-rights groups.

Kristen Leppard said the proposed ban was a logical follow-up to a 2016 statewide ballot measure barring the buying and selling of products from endangered animal species.

"We should no longer encourage the commercialization of live and exotic animals. They are not pets," said Leppard, who spoke for the Oregon Coalition to Save Endangered Animals.

"Washington County should seize this opportunity to protect its citizens from preventable danger and our organization stands in full support of the proposed ordinance."

Brian Posentz, a Portland lawyer who spoke for Humane Oregon, said there are circumstances requiring confinement of animals, such as animal rescue efforts, "but we think it's not right to make these animals live that way."

"The problem with letting private parties keep animals like this in captivity is that it just breeds this whole cycle of breeding, buying and selling — and puts more and more animals in these situations," Posentz said.

Andrea Kozl, a district leader for the Humane Society of the United States, said: "It's a common-sense proposal that will protect animal welfare and public safety."

What opponents say

But most who testified identified themselves as supporters of Walk on the Wild Side. Several argued the real aim of the proposed ordinance is to ban the group's current operation.

"My client feels unjustifiably targeted by county staff," said Darin Campbell, a spokesman for Steve Higgs and Cheryl Jones, partners in Walk on the Wild Side.

Campbell described the pending violations against Higgs and Jones "laughable at best."

Both spoke on their own behalf later.

"A lot of lies have been told tonight," Jones said. She blamed misimpressions on news accounts and added, ""It is horrific how some people are being treated."

Higgs said he and Jones attempted to minimize conflicts "but suddenly we have a neighbor up in arms" because of potential effects on a nearby horse farm.

"There is a facility out there that has gone to seed and has been sitting out there, it is underutilized and it is in a prime location," said Larry Burbidge, a real estate broker who helped arrange the move. "I saw an opportunity."

Two neighboring landowners, sitting side by side during their testimony, offered dramatically differing views.

"The sound carries very dramatically," said Jean Edwards, who with her husband grow blueberries nearby. "We hear cats roaring at all hours. It's not what you expect in a farm community."

But Cindy Kline described it as a dispute among neighbors.

"I hardly ever hear those lions making noise," Kline said. "The only way I can hear those lions is if I really want to hear them."

Opponents of the proposed ban came from within and outside the county.

Debra Burke, who lives on Northwest Victory Lane near Walk on the Wild Side, said county officials have presented nothing to justify the ban.

"I believe that you, as a governmental body, do not have the right to ban anything that is statistically invalid – or just because you don't like them," she said. "I believe in the right of people to have any type of animal they are properly trained to own and can support financially."

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