County approves permit to save Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center near Scottsdale


A Mexican gray wolf at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

Months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center near Scottsdale ended on Wednesday, when the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a 20-year license for the non-profit sanctuary.

Southwest Wildlife, which for 22 years rescued injured and orphaned wildlife, in 2015 became the target of repeated complaints from a neighbor on noise and dust. The property is located on unincorporated county land near 156th Street and Rio Verde Drive, a rural area east of Scottsdale with large lots and dirt roads.

The complaints sparked close scrutiny from county officials, who determined the shelter was operating without the required permit to offer group tours, a crucial source of income for the center. Although the refuge is not open to visitors on foot, hundreds of people book tours each month, including school groups.

Southwest Wildlife found itself faced with a ‘do or die’ scenario: getting county approval for a special use permit or shutting it down, potentially leaving hundreds of animals homeless, including bears, bobcats, wolves and porcupines.

“It’s (the refuge) like my baby,” said Linda Searles, executive director of Southwest Wildlife. “I have been feeding him for 22 years. To think that this was going to go away because we wouldn’t be able to continue financially was devastating. It was depressing and frustrating.”

The public gathered around the shrine

Those emotions were replaced with relief and gratitude on Wednesday, following a unanimous vote led by County Supervisor Steve Chucri, whose district includes ownership of the shelter.

Chucri, who in April secured approval of the permit, has been joined by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Scottsdale City Council and more than 200,000 petitioners who have defended the center.

“We are so lucky to have so many people supporting us,” Searles said. “We know we touch a lot of animal lives, but we didn’t know we touch so many people.”

Arizona Game and Fish sent a letter of support to county planners in April, praising Southwest Wildlife for providing “altruistic service” that cannot be found elsewhere.

“Their main goal is to successfully rehabilitate injured and orphaned animals and put them back into the wild,” said Game and Fish spokesperson Jim Paxon. The Republic in May. “We want wildlife to be wild.”

When the animals cannot be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, the conservation center finds them a new home, either on the property or in another refuge or zoo. Southwest Wildlife recently helped two orphaned lynxes find permanent habitat at the Miami Zoo.

Spring and summer are the busiest seasons for newcomers to the shelter, which recently welcomed 12 lynx kittens and three mothers, Searles said. Baby raccoons, skunks and coyote puppies have also arrived, she said.

Alleged “extreme stress” complaint

The complaints against Southwest Wildlife came from Seth Gortler, who moved next door to the sanctuary in 2012. He said The Republic in February that what he considers a commercial zoo has no place in a residential neighborhood.

Gortler filed a complaint in 2015 against the shelter, saying the howling wolves caused “long-term sleep deprivation and extreme stress.” He criticized the traffic of visitors to the refuge for stirring up the dust and chewing the dirt roads.

The roads to the refuge property from Rio Verde Drive are rough and dusty, with washboard-like surfaces for much of the mile-long stretch. There is parking at the refuge for about 50 cars, according to a county report.

The county permit could address some of these concerns by capping group sizes and requiring dust control.

Most group tours will be limited to 50 people, although the shelter is allowed to hold three gatherings each year with up to 100 people. The center is also required to use a tanker to control dust along 156th Street and must report to County Council after two years to ensure compliance.

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