Holy Kowiachobee! Animal preserve shuts its gates after code enforcement fight

Tucked away on a woodsy street in Golden Gate Estates, an animal preserve has been getting some visitors besides the usual elementary students on field trips to learn about wildlife.

Collier County code enforcers have told the Kowiachobee Animal Preserve on Fourth Avenue Southeast that it has to shut its gates because its five acres is not zoned for the nonprofit educational group to be open to the public.

Since 2001, thousands of schoolchildren have made the trip to get up close with the preserve menagerie of between 100 and 150 animals, from pigs and geese to tigers and lions.

"We're beside ourselves with this," said owner Grace Slaby, who runs the preserve with her husband, John. "That's stuff we'll have to stop. It's really very disheartening."

The run-in with the county recalls another zoning controversy over privately run wildlife attraction, Ngala, also known as Close-up Creatures, in North Belle Meade. That was settled in 2009 after a seven-year permitting saga.

Code enforcers say Kowiachobee can remain at its current location, and preserve managers say they still plan to take animals to local schools and libraries.

The rub with Collier County is about the kind of traffic the preserve generates in a residential neighborhood, county spokeswoman Connie Deane said.

"It's not zoned for field trips, buses, public visits," she said, adding that there might also be problems with adequate parking and handicap accessibility.

Kowiachobee was issued a notice of violation in September 2011 following an August complaint to the county's zoning department. That wasn't the first time county inspectors had knocked on the preserve's door.

Over the years, the preserve has satisfied the county by adjusting the wording on its brochures and on its Facebook page and by changing plans to have radio stations on site for celebrations, preserve manager John Slaby said.

"We've been trying to do everything they wanted us to do," Slaby said. "It's not like we've been fighting them for 10 years."

Deane said she did not know why the county has not told Kowiachobee it had to stop public visits before now, citing unfamiliarity with previous complaints that generated the earlier inspections.

Kowiachobee has all the required state and federal permits, including from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Department of Agriculture.

The preserve should not run afoul of the county's codes because it is not a business operating in a residential area, manager John Slaby said.

Kowiachobee has no hours of operation. It opens by appointment only. Visitors are not charged an admission fee, though some offer voluntary donations. No commerce takes place there, Slaby said.

"There's a jar on a table," Slaby said. "We don't even take money out of peoples' hands."

After issuing the notice of violation, the county gave Kowiachobee options to fix the problem, including pleading its case to county commissioners or getting a rezone approval or variance.

The preserve has continued to operate as usual, and now is set for a May 24 hearing in front of the county's Code Enforcement Board. That board will determine whether a violation exists and, if so, give the preserve a deadline to come into compliance or face undetermined fines.

John Slaby doesn't know whether he'll be there.

He is supposed to be talking to biology students at Palmetto Ridge High School that day, he said.

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Comments » 90

brianfl writes:

Way to go kollier kounty. Do people have property rights anymore?

what234 writes:

in response to brianfl:

Way to go kollier kounty. Do people have property rights anymore?

ummm nope, not as long as some jerk neighbor cries about what you do at your own home!

Beachglow writes:

I think it is very dangerous to have animals in or close to a residential neighborhood. The city/county should have total control over these types of places, and individuals should not be running these kinds of businesses whether non-profit or not.

brianfl writes:

in response to Beachglow:

I think it is very dangerous to have animals in or close to a residential neighborhood. The city/county should have total control over these types of places, and individuals should not be running these kinds of businesses whether non-profit or not.

The state visits these places on a regular basis for inspections and have strict rules on cage requirements for dangerous animals. Close to a residential neighborhood? Where do think most zoos are located? Right in middle of high density urban places. How is this place any different? There are bears and sometimes panthers in the estates. How is that safe?

freedomsailor writes:

This is just county employees playing hardball, messing with the good being done in the county. They just can't handle anything that is of real value to the citizens of the county. I guess that their justification would be that "it is just our job." Well, maybe it is time to get some of these jerks out of a job!

Nplschick writes:

This is very sad to hear. Good luck John and Grace. I hope things can get worked out! I have enjoyed visiting your place and meeting your animals.

intense writes:

It is apparently a traffic/parking/access issue.
But, my eyebrows raised when I read "between 100 and 150 animals, from pigs and geese to tigers and lions".
All that on FIVE ACRES?
That hardly seems do-able OR sanitary OR a good environment for the animals.
FIVE ACRES and 100 to 150 animals??
Apparently the state doesn't have a problem with someone housing that many animals on so few acres.
I dunno. Maybe it works.
Wonder what it smells like if you live downwind from them.

SergeStorm writes:

Standard procedure for Kollier Kounty Kode Enforcement Nazis. No good deed shall remain unpunished! Kounty oberfuhrer Leo Ochs presides over the land where only the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

jmoonesq writes:

I have been out to John's place before and also went back a second time with my daughter and the animals there are well beyond taken care of. Never once did I feel unsafe with her on the property. Five years later she still talks about the animals that she saw there, was able to get up close with and learn about. They are treated better than most humans. It's a shame that something like this could happen after all these years. I understand if he just opened up, but he has been there long before the residents moved out there. All this is, is a disgruntled resident who didn't get there way so they decided to file a complaint against him. If this closes, it's a shame because it's the kids that lose out. But this is Collier County, we only care about retirees, not kids that might make noise, laugh, or have fun.

jmoonesq writes:

Sorry "there" = "their" still early.

naples_rocket writes:

I personally know several property rights activists here who are very vocal until their neighbors start exercising their property rights. Then they are the ones calling code enforcement and complaining how neighbors are hurting the value of their property and quality of life.
I have lived here for eight years and I am still surprised how many people cannot connect the dots - this place is not like east coast or other dump BECAUSE of "kollier kounty gestapo government" and strict rules.
Good job Code Enforcement!

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

Unfortunately, this isn't about community good deeds or rogue code enforcement. John and Grace are nice people. There are rules, and they knew about them when they first started. This isn't new and they have lots of options. Sad it had to come to this.

OP writes:

"After issuing the notice of violation, the county gave Kowiachobee options to fix the problem, including pleading its case to county commissioners or getting a rezone approval or variance."

This is what is wrong with government on so many levels. They are aware that the problem is generated by the government's involvement. And, they are aware that the people involved wish to continue with their present operations at its present site. Further, government is aware that it may be possible that a variance can be issued. But, all of the effort to justify a variance falls on the people, with the government accepting only a passive role until it is asked to react to the people's efforts. Why are we paying these people? Surely it isn't only for them to be the boss of us? The government decided this is a problem, and they have admitted that they can conceive that it doesn't have to be viewed as a problem. So, let them find the set of regulatory options that inspired them to allow that their decision is not absolute. In this case, the government has been nit-picking these people for years, and the burden is always on the people; which they have repeatedly met to the government satisfaction. At some point this continued negative involvement meets the standard of harassment, it is time for government to adjust and the people to live their good lives.

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

Sorry Vinny you are in the wrong battle here. This isn't about harassment, it is about lane use and the people who live around this park and their rights. The zoning rules and laws have been on the books since the Estates was built. Are you saying that you would support someone breaking the law? Sounds like it. Take the proper stand quickly on this issue.

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

The neighbors bought land and built with the expectation that zoning laws would be enforced. Code enforcement isn't the bad guy here. How would you like to build a nice home in a community and then a zoo moves in next door or even down the street? Vinny wants to somehow blame the Sheriff.

OP writes:

in response to vinnybombotz:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Vinny, it is not a business.

ke4ktz writes:

in response to Beachglow:

I think it is very dangerous to have animals in or close to a residential neighborhood. The city/county should have total control over these types of places, and individuals should not be running these kinds of businesses whether non-profit or not.

It is not zoned as residential, it's zoned as agricultural. That's why you are allowed to have farm animals on your lot in the estates. That's also what they use to control the density of the homes.

OP writes:

in response to TheyPavedParadise2:

Sorry Vinny you are in the wrong battle here. This isn't about harassment, it is about lane use and the people who live around this park and their rights. The zoning rules and laws have been on the books since the Estates was built. Are you saying that you would support someone breaking the law? Sounds like it. Take the proper stand quickly on this issue.

Can we assume that you live on this street? If so, would you tell us how many more cars travel it each day because they are visiting the animals?

With their place only open by appointment, there can not be an unexpected swell of visitors, do they really accept so much traffic that it disrupts your life?

Therealist writes:

Traffic and parking issues.....right.

Therealist writes:

in response to SoldierStrong:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Don't be a dweeb. Whiners come from all walks of life.

Aqua writes:

in response to ke4ktz:

It is not zoned as residential, it's zoned as agricultural. That's why you are allowed to have farm animals on your lot in the estates. That's also what they use to control the density of the homes.

No, it is zoned as "Estates," which is residential and has rules, just like any other neighborhood. Code Enforcement just enforces the rules. Others have posted that the reason we have a nice community is partly due to the rules. This should not be a controversy, and should not depend on whether someone is nice and has an interesting thing going. You can't enforce rules effectively unless you do your best to enforce fairly. Otherwise people lose respect for and confidence in the laws. Let the process play out.

wentfishn writes:

in response to SergeStorm:

Standard procedure for Kollier Kounty Kode Enforcement Nazis. No good deed shall remain unpunished! Kounty oberfuhrer Leo Ochs presides over the land where only the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Yup and there are violations which they ignore when it suits them.Grease yessss. thinkabout it!

Illusion writes:

in response to vinnybombotz:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Serve and protect is right, guess who often goes to this location to clean up the farm? The weekend inmates. Tax dollars for "bologna" sandwiches are being used on cleaning up personal property, regularly.

thatjustme writes:

in response to TheyPavedParadise2:

The neighbors bought land and built with the expectation that zoning laws would be enforced. Code enforcement isn't the bad guy here. How would you like to build a nice home in a community and then a zoo moves in next door or even down the street? Vinny wants to somehow blame the Sheriff.

personally I would love that.

FlaBlkPanther writes:

C.C. what a bunch of Alpha Hotelss!!
I hope they can continue their good work in feeding the animals.
Only in Naples

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

in response to ke4ktz:

It is not zoned as residential, it's zoned as agricultural. That's why you are allowed to have farm animals on your lot in the estates. That's also what they use to control the density of the homes.

No, it is zoned estates.
You can have an office or a small business, but no employees or customers can come and go. Those are the rules. They may have had the animals for years, and if they meet the maximum rules for quantity by acreage they are fine. When they have people visit for any reason they have crossed the line.

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

in response to Aqua:

No, it is zoned as "Estates," which is residential and has rules, just like any other neighborhood. Code Enforcement just enforces the rules. Others have posted that the reason we have a nice community is partly due to the rules. This should not be a controversy, and should not depend on whether someone is nice and has an interesting thing going. You can't enforce rules effectively unless you do your best to enforce fairly. Otherwise people lose respect for and confidence in the laws. Let the process play out.

You go girl, totally correct.

Sick writes:

What does Holy have to do with this?

Remove the word Holy.

NOW!

I_Had_Enough (Inactive) writes:

I didn't even know this preserve was out there. It's a shame Collier County had to stick their noses in someone else's business. Oh well.

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

in response to Illusion:

Serve and protect is right, guess who often goes to this location to clean up the farm? The weekend inmates. Tax dollars for "bologna" sandwiches are being used on cleaning up personal property, regularly.

Can you give dates and times please? Is it possible they are abating code violations and the property owners are being charged for this service?
If you have more information and the County is involved in this please provide the info.

beetlejuice writes:

why does code enforcement bother good Golden Gate Estate residents????
There's puppy mills within blocks & dogs suffer
WTF?

native_at_heart writes:

A friend and I were there about 3 weeks ago. It's not a Zoo with pretty landscaping and a gift shop full of Chinese made chachkies. It is a preserve/refuge for animals, some rescued from people who thought they could keep a wild animal as a pet. It was very clean, nothing smelled and the animals were all in good, well fed condition. We were the only ones there at the time but I didn't notice excessive traffic by any means. They are in the process of building an 'outdoor' enclosure with a waterfall for the larger cats....it looked very nice and my hope is they will be able to finish the construction. The 100-150 animals seems like an exaggeration, but I suppose if you count each bird and reptile it's possible although they are zoned for more than what they have. Kelsey walked us around the property and she was very knowledgeable of the animals and it was obvious the animals knew her, as we approached each cage (which were clean)they all came to greet her, none backed away in a defensive manner which says a lot of how they are cared for. They are not exploiting these animals for profit, their purpose is education. It makes no sense after 10+ yrs of operating with the proper permits that there is now a problem. Parking and traffic cannot be the issue, they schedule private tours so they have control of such things so that they are not in violation. Something smells here, and it's not Kowiachobee!

blueblueblue writes:

in response to native_at_heart:

A friend and I were there about 3 weeks ago. It's not a Zoo with pretty landscaping and a gift shop full of Chinese made chachkies. It is a preserve/refuge for animals, some rescued from people who thought they could keep a wild animal as a pet. It was very clean, nothing smelled and the animals were all in good, well fed condition. We were the only ones there at the time but I didn't notice excessive traffic by any means. They are in the process of building an 'outdoor' enclosure with a waterfall for the larger cats....it looked very nice and my hope is they will be able to finish the construction. The 100-150 animals seems like an exaggeration, but I suppose if you count each bird and reptile it's possible although they are zoned for more than what they have. Kelsey walked us around the property and she was very knowledgeable of the animals and it was obvious the animals knew her, as we approached each cage (which were clean)they all came to greet her, none backed away in a defensive manner which says a lot of how they are cared for. They are not exploiting these animals for profit, their purpose is education. It makes no sense after 10+ yrs of operating with the proper permits that there is now a problem. Parking and traffic cannot be the issue, they schedule private tours so they have control of such things so that they are not in violation. Something smells here, and it's not Kowiachobee!

You always write the best posts! Hope you are well and taking good care of those kitties!
indi

np writes:

Isn't the Naples Zoo outing a good day trip for the schoolchildren?

ravenhawk writes:

in response to Sick:

What does Holy have to do with this?

Remove the word Holy.

NOW!

Why?

native_at_heart writes:

in response to blueblueblue:

You always write the best posts! Hope you are well and taking good care of those kitties!
indi

HI INDI!!! thanks. I'm OK, the kitties rule so I'm sure they will let me know if they have a problem with me. Good to see you here, hope all is well with you too.

Illusion writes:

in response to TheyPavedParadise2:

Can you give dates and times please? Is it possible they are abating code violations and the property owners are being charged for this service?
If you have more information and the County is involved in this please provide the info.

There were a few friendly CO's that accommodated this "preserve". Yo can often pass by and see the bus parked there on Saturdays and Sundays. I sincerely doubt the owners paid, but you may call the Sheriff's department and inquire. I am certain they will be forthcoming.

aurora writes:

Looking at the pictures that accompany the article raises a few concerns for me. They have a 5 month old lion cub, and tiger cub. Where did they come from, were they rescused or were they born there? The reputable sanctuaries make sure their animals are spayed/neutered so that they don't add to the population of animals that are spending their lives in small enclosures. The volunteer resting on the lion cub is so dangerous, these are still "wild" animals, and anything can trigger an attack, no matter how loved or how much time is spent with them. At 5 months old, the lion and tiger cubs have teeth and claws that can do major damage.
The laws need to be changed, private ownership of these beautiful animals needs to be regulated. What happened is Zanesville Ohio should be a wakeup call. Just because it isn't against the law, doesn't make it right for private citizens to own exotic animals, especially big cats.

JunkYardDog_1 (Inactive) writes:

in response to OP:

Vinny, it is not a business.

His lights are on but know one's home.

JunkYardDog_1 (Inactive) writes:

in response to native_at_heart:

A friend and I were there about 3 weeks ago. It's not a Zoo with pretty landscaping and a gift shop full of Chinese made chachkies. It is a preserve/refuge for animals, some rescued from people who thought they could keep a wild animal as a pet. It was very clean, nothing smelled and the animals were all in good, well fed condition. We were the only ones there at the time but I didn't notice excessive traffic by any means. They are in the process of building an 'outdoor' enclosure with a waterfall for the larger cats....it looked very nice and my hope is they will be able to finish the construction. The 100-150 animals seems like an exaggeration, but I suppose if you count each bird and reptile it's possible although they are zoned for more than what they have. Kelsey walked us around the property and she was very knowledgeable of the animals and it was obvious the animals knew her, as we approached each cage (which were clean)they all came to greet her, none backed away in a defensive manner which says a lot of how they are cared for. They are not exploiting these animals for profit, their purpose is education. It makes no sense after 10+ yrs of operating with the proper permits that there is now a problem. Parking and traffic cannot be the issue, they schedule private tours so they have control of such things so that they are not in violation. Something smells here, and it's not Kowiachobee!

Was a dog following you?

napleschik writes:

in response to JunkYardDog_1:

His lights are on but know one's home.

They are listed with the County as a business. #052640
They are also a Florida Corporation.
They would need to pass all of this for the school system to take kids there. They would need to be insured, licensed and operated as a business. That is where the line was drawn it appears.
They are a non profit, that is why the Sheriff and the prisoners go there. Obviously they didn't know they couldn't do that either.

napleschik writes:

in response to SoldierStrong:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Can they move next to you?

native_at_heart writes:

in response to JunkYardDog_1:

Was a dog following you?

yes, there was and a mighty fine dog at that! after all a dog is man's (or girl's) best friend.

native_at_heart writes:

in response to SoldierStrong:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree. If it was a newly moved in resident, maybe they should have checked out who their neighbors were going to be before moving in and if they didn't like what they saw...live somewhere else.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kowiac...

laslic writes:

in response to I_Had_Enough:

I didn't even know this preserve was out there. It's a shame Collier County had to stick their noses in someone else's business. Oh well.

Yeah, they should not stick their nose in the grow house nextdoor either!

Bramble writes:

BCC has already told CE to stop issuing cites for those violating 3-dog limit om GGE and asked for a LDC re-write. This place could be grandfathered in with the revise. No big deal. Like Ngala.

ehamneggs writes:

"Stand your Ground", should be applied!

TheyPavedParadise2 writes:

in response to Bramble:

BCC has already told CE to stop issuing cites for those violating 3-dog limit om GGE and asked for a LDC re-write. This place could be grandfathered in with the revise. No big deal. Like Ngala.

Never happen, not the same at all. And no bert harris for the preserve because the rules are specific. The neighbors are another thing they will all enjoin a class action bert harris lawsuit if the County tries to re-write the LDC. All kinds of attorneys will enjoy easy money on that one. The County would be responsible for all of the legal bills.
Bad decisions will cost the tax payers more money.

SlabyJ writes:

I would like to thank our friends for their support. I would also like to say that I would be more than happy to answer any question, or clarify where we stand on this issue. I will answer a couple right now. Although there are over 100 animal the majority are either different fowl, chickens, ducks, gease,turkey, peacock,macaws, parrot and the like. Or small animals, prairie dogs, sugar gliders,ferrets and a few reptiles. Enclosures, pens, cages and habitats are cleaned daily. There are no paid employees,100%volenteer. We operate solely by donations, no govt. funds. I will also add that although we will have to cease on site activities, we will be able to continue to function off site. So visit too the summer camps, libraries,schools and such will continue. We also a knowlage the fact that big cats are not pets and dangerous and are to be treated as such. Our facility is inspected 2 to 4 times a year by govt. agencies. And is subject to as many inspections as desired by said agencies. The cats in the house with the volunteers are 5 months old and will be moved outside at 6 months and are already not in contact with anyone who has not been trained to be around them. ( by the way Michelle in the pic with the lion has no scratches or bruises from said lion however has her wrist bandaged due to a bee sting )

User5678 writes:

in response to TheyPavedParadise2:

No, it is zoned estates.
You can have an office or a small business, but no employees or customers can come and go. Those are the rules. They may have had the animals for years, and if they meet the maximum rules for quantity by acreage they are fine. When they have people visit for any reason they have crossed the line.

So I can have a business on my estates property but no one can come visit? For any reason? No guests, no visitors, no repairmen..... Christmas is going to suck! So much for Uncle Jimmy's birthday party. What an absolutely ridiculous idea.

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