goleader.com - Union County, NJ Newspapers

Hearing Is Set for May Regarding Zoo Permits

By SUZETTE STALKER

Specially Written for The Times

An administrative hearing has been scheduled for next month concerning the state’s recent decision not to renew operating permits for the Scotch Plains Zoo on Raritan Road, after the owners were cited for multiple violations related to public safety and animal welfare, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced on Tuesday.

Zoo owner Harold Kafka of Watchung is expected to appeal the state’s denial of his animal exhibitor and zoological permits when the hearing takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 13 and 14, before Judge Edith Klinger at the Office of Administrative Law in Newark. The proceedings, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., will be open to the public.

Mr. Kafka requested the hearing after the state Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, an arm of the DEP, declined to renew his permits for the 6.5-acre facility, which is home to approximately 150 animals, including some rare and endangered species. Mr. Kafka and his wife, Deborah, purchased the zoo three years ago from former owners Franklin and Louise Terry.

A statement issued by the DEP on Tuesday said that permits for the zoo were denied "based on a number of current and past failures of the owners to comply with state regulations governing the possession of wildlife. The failures include "problems affecting public safety and animal welfare which were uncorrected despite repeated warnings, failure to file mandatory quarterly reports on animal deaths, births, acquisitions and disposals, and acquiring animals without a permit."

State officials have also charged the Kafkas with ignoring "numerous verbal and written directives by Fish, Game and Wildlife to correct violations involving caging, and have had 11 convictions or guilty pleas in municipal or superior court in the last two years concerning violation or wildlife possession regulations."

According to the DEP, state regulations prohibit the Fish, Game and Wildlife Division from issuing a permit "when there have been court convictions or guilty pleas within specified time frames."

Judge Frederick C. Kentz, Jr. in Superior Court in Elizabeth appointed Union Township Attorney Martin B. O’Connor, 2nd, as permanent custodian of the zoo on April 14 after the latter submitted a report on the financial status of the zoo as well as the condition of the animals there. Mr. O’ Connor, who had been appointed as temporary custodian on March 5, had compiled his information between that date and April 10.

According to Mr. O’Connor’s report, which included evaluations from several animal experts, there were "varying degrees of deficiencies with respect to the animals. However, it is important to note that none of the reports directly outline willful or gross negligence on the part of Mr. Kafka." Mr. O’Connor reported last week that Mr. Kafka has been cooperative since the attorney was appointed as custodian, and will continue to be involved in the running of the zoo.

Following the administrative hearing, Judge Klinger will have 45 days to hand down an initial decision, after which DEP Commissioner Robert C. Shinn, Jr. will have 45 days to issue a final decision in the case, according to the statement by the DEP. If Judge Klinger and Commissioner Shinn uphold the decision to deny renewal of the Kafkas’ permits, the couple will have 15 days to notify the state of their plans for relocating the animals.

The DEP reported that "several endangered species at the Scotch Plains Zoo, including birds of prey, are under federal ownership" and, in the event that Mr. Kafka loses his appeal, "transfers of these animals will be supervised by and at the discretion of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife."

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10/25/97.

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