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Lawsuit Against Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center Gains Attention

mountain lion
Annika Cline/KJZZ
Tocho the mountain lion eats his breakfast.

The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center has more than 200 animals and an increasing number of human neighbors as the area develops. Last summer one neighbor sued the center over the noise, among other complaints. This week the issue has gotten more social media and news attention.

The neighborhood is tucked between McDowell Mountain Regional Park and the west side of Tonto National Forest. It’s county land. A dirt road leads past new homes and out to the wildlife center.

“Gosh, our closest neighbors were a quarter mile away, and we only had one when we first moved out here,” said Executive Director Linda Searles.

That was 22 years ago. The neighborhood has changed, and the center has grown, too. It cares for rescue animals, all with a different backstory, “from skunks to ringtails to coatis to raccoons, all the way up to bears and mountain lions,” Searles said

Almost all are animals you’d find on the land surrounding the center.

Seth Gortler, the neighbor who is suing the center, said the reason he moved out here in 2012 was to be closer to nature. The problem, he said, is the noise from the coyotes and wolves.

In a written statement to KJZZ Gortler said, “This isn’t animal sounds off in the distance that I can shut out behind closed doors; this is right next to me. It sounds like I’m living inside a dog kennel.”

The center has about 40 wolves and coyotes. Gortler said he visited the center during the day before buying his house, but he realized the problem happens at night - he said that’s when the howling is the worst. He argues it’s a violation of the county noise ordinance. But Searles, who lives on the center property, said the howling and barking is not that bad.

“When they do howl it’s like 60 seconds, then it’s over. It’s not very long,” Searles said. 

Gortler has another complaint - the tours. Searles said they average about 5,000 visitors a year, mostly school kids. 

“Pretty much had people come in almost every day, every day but Sunday. And we had a lot of school groups, so we had buses in with school kids to do programs. We had summer camps during the summer,” Searles said.

Gortler’s objection here is the dust on the road from the vehicles, which Searles said they will address with a water truck. In the meantime, the tours have been mostly suspended because the center didn’t have the proper permit to hold public events.

“The county zoning concern at this point is that any public assembly on the site have some type of temporary use permit specific for that event, or they obtain a special use permit which would allow for the ongoing public assembly at their private wildlife reservation,” said Darren Gerard, deputy director of the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department.

The center plans to apply for a special use permit, and, with that, the tours and camps can start again, which Searles said are key to raising awareness about the center. That leaves the noise as the final major issue. 

Gortler said he doesn’t want the whole center to go.

“The only problem is the coyotes and wolves.  People must think I’m some Grinch that can’t stand even the distant howl of wildlife,” he said in his statement.

But Searles said she doesn’t plan on moving the coyotes or wolves, and that she doesn’t know where they could go.

“There’s few places for wildlife to go. Most veterinary hospitals will not see wildlife, so they have no alternative. We’re it,” she said. 

But their neighbor doesn’t want to go, either. With that, they’re stuck at an impasse until the eventual result of the lawsuit.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.