Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife calling for the firm to revoke the exotic animal permits of A Walk on the Wild Side, which moved to the Hillsboro area more than a year ago. PETA alleges A Walk on the Wild Side has violated several state wildlife laws, such as keeping cougars and bobcats without proper permits.
The nonprofit rescue takes in displaced exotic animals, including bears, tigers and other large cats. The group was based in Canby for years, but relocated to a horse farm near McKay Creek in 2016, after a years-long dispute with Clackamas County over zoning issues.
In its letter, PETA said A Walk on the Wild Side's permits became invalid when it moved to its current headquarters, south of Sunset Highway and north of Hillsboro. PETA also claims the group is ineligible to receive new permits, because of its history of violations with animal laws.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited A Walk on the Wild Side several times on a myriad of issues, from missing or inadequate veterinary records for its animals to not building fences high enough around big cat enclosures. In 2016, the organization was cited by the USDA for transporting a tiger cub less than four weeks old across the country. It was the second citation for transporting young animals the organization has received.
Darin Campbell, a spokesman for A Walk on the Wild Side, said the organization follows all state and federal laws.
"We have a good working relationship with Fish and Wildlife," Campbell said. "We do what they say and any hoops they put in front of us we jump through gladly."
The permits require animal rescues to maintain a "good reputation" of complying with state and federal laws, PETA said in its letter, which should disqualify A Walk on the Wild Side because of its history of violations.
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Wild animal photos anger group
A Walk on the Wild side was founded by owner Steve Higgs 30 years ago to rescue unwanted exotic animals including lions and tigers. The organization travels to county fairs and private events around the Pacific Northwest, allowing members of the public to take photos holding baby tigers and other animals.
"It"s not like we"re taking animals out of the wild," Higgs told Pamplin Media Group last year. "We"re rescuing animals that potentially would have been euthanized and taking them and giving them homes for life."
Brittany Peet, director of PETA's captive animal law enforcement division, said Walk on the Wild Side is abusing its animals by allowing them to be handled by the public.
"Reputable sanctuaries are able to fund operations and care for their animals without abusing and exploiting them," Peet said. "If have to abuse and exploit them in order to care for them, you should find another business. You're not doing any good."
Using infant cubs in photo shoots can be damaging for the animals' psychological health, Peet said. The practice puts stress on mothers and can have mental health issues with the cubs as well, she said.
"Any time we hear that a group is pulling infant animals from their mothers for photo ops, that becomes a top priority for us," Peet said. "We try to focus on the 'worst of the worst.' A Walk on the Wild Side fits that bill."
Campbell said he was not surprised to hear of PETA's complaint.
"This is a typical thing with (PETA)," he said. "They throw up anything they think sounds good that might get some sort of public reaction. It doesn't usually involving much of the truth."
Campbell said the group doesn't own a bobcat, which the PETA letter contends.
"When it comes to PETA, they like to twist the truth and distort things," he said. "If it sounds like a good soundbite they'll run with it."
County ban could force move
A Walk on the Wild Side has been the focus of a two-year-long struggle with Washington County officials over its right to use the Hillsboro-area farm as a home for big cats and other wildlife.
The county argued the nonprofit did not have land-use clearances or permits to move exotic animals to the site. The property is zoned for farmland, and county officials stressed for months that the animal rescue failed to obtain county permits for structures to house the animals.
In June, a county hearings officers fined the group $10,000 for the violations.
Also in June, county officials banned exotic animals from being kept within the county, unless they become accredited through the American Zoological Association — which accredited the Oregon Zoo and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
The ban goes into effect Sept. 17.
Campbell said A Walk on the Wild Side is working to get AZA certification. Under the terms of the county"s ban, A Walk on the Wild Side has up to one year to receive the accreditation before it will have to leave.
In the meantime, Campbell said, the group is looking at possibly moving from its Hillsboro farm.
"It's no secret, the county has done some actions that make it seem like we're not wanted," Campbell said. "But there are a lot of areas that do want us. We'd like to stay where we are. We have invested a lot of money into that location."