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Hillsboro area animal park could seek national accreditation for an exemption, but co-owner says lawyers will consider options, including moving. Split vote comes after six months of public discussion.

Washington County commissioners have imposed a modified ban on exotic animals.

The ban takes effect Sept. 17, but leaves in limbo the future of Walk on the Wild Side, a nonprofit animal group that relocated in 2017 from Canby to a former horse farm near McKay Creek, south of Sunset Highway and north of Hillsboro.

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 a similar ordinance and Hillsboro has a partial ban. The county ban applies to areas outside city limits.

The June 19 vote for approval was 4-1.

Although some animal-rights supporters would have liked the county board to go further, one advocate said they were satisfied with what she called an important first step.

"We think this will prohibit Walk on the Wild Side from many of the unscrupulous activities they are engaged in," said Delcianna Winders, vice president and deputy general counsel for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.

The vote took place six months after a public hearing on the initial ban, which proposed only narrow exceptions.

The final version allows an exception for accreditation or certification by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — and if an application is pending, the exception can last one year.

Steve Higgs, a co-owner of Walk on the Wild Side, said afterward he is unsure what his next step is.

"We're going to move forward through our attorneys to see what we can do to extend our time, either to make a move or to stay," he said. "We are out there for the animals and hope to make the best situation for them — and not have to do a fast, gigantic mass move and potentially stress them out."

Walk on the Wild Side was penalized a maximum of $10,000 in a separate proceeding June 4. A county hearings officer found violations of county code in feeding and management of exotic animals on zoned farmland, and failure to obtain county permits for structures to house the animals. Owners can reduce the penalty by half if they remove structures or obtain county permits within 60 days.

Majority sees balance

Commissioner Greg Malinowski spoke for the board majority.

"We have given an out" in the form of approval by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, he said. "It's a lot of work. But it's a way out. That may be what you have to deal with to meet that level of criteria. I'm going to support this as is."

Commissioner Bob Terry, whose district includes the disputed animal park, said the final version drew the right balance.

"We didn't want to look at the hysteria that came with it," he said. "People were emotional, and I didn't want this to be driven by emotion."

The ordinance names the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as the only group that can offer approval. It has accredited the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and Wildlife Safari near Roseburg.

"We don't know that we are going to get turned down by the AZA," Higgs said afterward.

But Darin Campbell, a volunteer spokesman for Walk on the Wild Side, added: "It would be a big uphill battle."

Campbell had sought to persuade the board to allow an alternative approval by the Zoological Association of America.

"I would like to see us overcome the AZA requirements, which are extreme at best," he said during the hearing. Although the standards of the other organization are not as rigorous, he said, "they will make sure that what we do is in the best interests of the animals as well as the community at large."

But Brad Anderson, a senior assistant county counsel, said the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was specified in the ordinance because it is the "gold standard."

PETA's Winders said Walk on the Wild Side engages primarily in exhibiting animals and allowing their direct contact with people.

"Even the most cursory look at the record of Walk on the Wild Side reveals a business that has no interest whatsoever in following local, state or federal law," she said.

"We would like to see native species also prohibited because they do suffer and they are also dangerous."

Duyck dissent

Chairman Andy Duyck, the lone dissenter on the board vote, recalled that his family tended wild animals, even a skunk — though not exotic species as defined by state law — while he was growing up on his family's farm in western Washington County.

He said that while the current debate was shaped largely by perceptions of Walk on the Wild Side, the final ban extends beyond considerations of public health and safety to personal ownership of such animals.

"I believe we get into a mindset where we need to tell people that they simply cannot have any animal we do not deem a domesticated animal. That becomes a problem," he said.

"I believe this is an ordinance that is looking for a solution. It takes us a little further than I am comfortable with."

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