TOWN OF RIVERVIEW - Since 2008, visitors to the Lakewood Zoo have enjoyed the lions, tigers, and bears. But this year the Oconto County attraction is closed to visitors.
After shutting down at the end of the season last year, the zoo's U.S. Department of Agriculture license to exhibit exotic animals lapsed. Until it's reinstated, the county decided it wouldn't allow the zoo to operate and pulled its permit. Since then more problems have cropped up.Oconto County attraction is closed to visitors.
"We got to get back open we just cannot stay closed," said owner Casey Ludwig.
The zoo is owned by Casey Ludwig, who faces legal battles on several fronts.
He received eight DNR citations for possessing live captive wild animals without a license. And he faces seven misdemeanor counts for allegedly illegally possessing live harmful animals.
Ludwig pleaded not guilty and the case is set for trial in Oconto County court Friday.
Now, a non-profit organization has taken over operations and it is having problems getting the necessary licenses so the zoo can reopen.
It starts with the town of Riverview. Officials there recently implemented an ordinance requiring a permit for having exotic wild animals.
"He needs a permit from the town to possess the animals, and he's been informed as to what the requirements are, and the number one requirement is to have insurance. Liability insurance," said Town of Riverview Plan Commission chair Paal Hansen.
Hansen said it's the town's responsibility to ensure the safety of both visitors and townspeople who go to the zoo.
"If there's ever any issue with damage or harm done by these animals, there's no protection at all. And that's not right," Hansen said.
Ludwig said the zoo board was recently in talks with town officials about getting insurance, saying they planned to have it soon.
But he added, before the board could get the policy in place, Hansen delivered him a citation for violating the town ordinance.
"We're all set to bind this insurance - the board of directors is - and we just had to make sure from the planning commission that it was done correctly and that's what we did. And the day before we're going to bind this insurance, they hand me a ticket," Ludwig said.
"I had enough," said Hansen. "We've been hearing he'll have insurance, he'll have insurance soon."
Ludwig called the citation another setback. He said without a town permit, the zoo won't be able to get a county permit, much less a USDA license, which he was recently denied.
"It's probably a $20 ticket, but that's going to hold up all federal licensing for the board of directors," Ludwig said.
But Hansen said if Ludwig follows the ordinance, he can begin moving forward, despite the citation.
"It sure would be nice if we'd get insurance and that would simply go away," Hansen said.
Hansen said the plan commission would then recommend the town board give the zoo a permit.
As the zoo remains closed indefinitely, zoo officials said they're losing so much revenue, it's becoming tough to feed the animals.
"We've lost in excess of $100,000. We're going to lose another $100,000 here with the fall being wiped out," Ludwig said.
Ludwig said it costs $200 a day to feed the animals, and he's grateful for the community's support.
"Hundreds and hundreds of people drop off food and are really trying to help us with all their hearts, but we still need to be open," stressed Ludwig.
Hansen said he'd also like to see the zoo re-open to the public, but added laws must be followed.
"It's a nice facility, it does bring a lot of people, and we would like to see a properly run zoo. If it's not properly run though, we don't want to be bringing people to a place where they might be harmed. Or if there is harm, then they're financially harmed. We don't want that," Hansen said.
The plan commission meets at the end of this month and one of the items on the agenda is to discuss insurance with the zoo board.
The board has also applied for a USDA permit to exhibit exotic animals. The agency says the application is currently under review.
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