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Scotch Plains Zoo Hearing is Postponed as Owner is Fined By Municipal Court Judge 97mar27


A hearing regarding the embattled Scotch Plains Zoo, which had been scheduled for last Thursday in Superior Court in Elizabeth, was adjourned until Thursday, April 10, in order to give a court-appointed attorney and an independent veterinarian additional time to prepare reports regarding conditions at the 6.5-acre facility.

Zoo owner Harold Kafka, meanwhile, pleaded guilty Monday in Scotch Plains Municipal Court to charges related to the housing of some of the animals at his establishment, which is located three miles south of Route No. 22 on Raritan Road. The zoo is home to approximately 150 animals, including a number of exotic or endangered species.

The penalties imposed on Mr. Kafka are expected to be either reduced or dismissed, however, if he meets conditions which were previously agreed upon between him and the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife by Monday, April 14, according to Municipal Court Clerk Yvonne Rude. The division opted not to renew Mr. Kafka’s operating permits in January, citing multiple violations concerning public safety and animal welfare.

The division issued summonses to Mr. Kafka following a March 12 inspection by a conservation officer and a zoologist, who found the zoo’s orangutan house unheated due to a lack of oil and the lights turned off, according to division spokeswoman Sharon Southard. Heat was restored to the unit, which houses several primates, as well as alligators, after an anonymous benefactor offered to have the oil tanks replenished.

Mr. Kafka also was issued a summons for failure to repair cages which house wolves at the zoo, and another for failure to properly house an otter at the facility, the Court Clerk said.

Scotch Plains Municipal Court Judge Joseph Perfilio fined Mr. Kafka $5,000 plus $30 court cost for failure to have the orangutan unit heated. The fine will be reduced to $250 on condition that the zoo owner makes arrangements for the orangutan to be transferred to another location by April 14, the Court Clerk confirmed.

Mr. Kafka was issued the same penalty for the charge involving the wolf enclosure, which will be totally abated if the zoo owner meets agreed-upon conditions, the Court Clerk said. She confirmed that the zoo owner was fined $200 plus $30 court cost for failure to adequately house the otter, which will be reduced to $50 if he fulfills the necessary requirements.

On March 5, Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Kentz, Jr. appointed attorney Martin O’Connor, 2nd, of the Union law firm of O’Connor, Morss and O’Connor, as legal custodian to examine the financial records of the zoo, which was bought three years ago by Mr. Kafka and his wife, Deborah, of Watchung. The facility, formerly known as the Terry Lou Zoo, was previously owned by Frank and Louise Terry, who now live in Florida.

At the upcoming hearing, Judge Kentz is expected to review written reports from Mr. O’ Connor, veterinarian Dr. Kathy Jamison of Pennsylvania, and reptile expert Bill Boesenberg of Elmwood Park. Dr. Jamison was scheduled to tour the Scotch Plains Zoo yesterday, March 26, to inspect conditions at the site. Among the zoo inhabitants are elephants, giraffes, large cats, primates, llamas, deer and birds.

According to Ms. Southard, the Fish, Game and Wildlife Division declined to renew the Kafkas’ permits after inspectors found that the zoo owners failed to provide "adequate shelter, food and water, as well as sufficient heating and ventilation" for some of the animals. Mr. Kafka has filed for a hearing before an administrative law judge to appeal the charges. No date has been scheduled yet for the hearing, Ms. Southard acknowledged.

Mr. Kafka recently told The Times that he was confident that he would be able to work out any problems with the state and denied that any animals at the zoo were mistreated. He said several weeks ago that he still plans to upgrade the facility pending final approval of his site plan by the Scotch Plains Board of Adjustment and emphasized that he intends to keep the zoo open.

Last year, Mr. Kafka was fined $1,700 for failure to file annual or quarterly reports and an additional $4,000 for other problems. Mr. Kafka also owes $3,300 to the Elizabethtown Gas Company, which shut off natural gas service to the facility February 24 because of non-payment. Service was restored to the zoo the following day after the New Jersey Associated Humane Societies, based in Newark, offered to pay the zoo’s heating bills for the duration of the winter.

On February 25, Judge Kentz issued an injunction at the request of the Terrys, who still hold the mortgage on the facility. The injunction called for an independent veterinarian to inspect the condition of the animals at the zoo and prevented the Kafkas from relocating any of them. Mr. Kafka said he remains on good terms with the Terrys and that his predecessors have been supportive of his efforts to improve conditions at the establishment.

Richard M. Cohen, the Scotch Plains attorney representing the Terrys, said his clients became concerned about conditions at the zoo after Mr. Kafka had fallen behind with his mortgage payments and his permit to possess the animals had not been renewed. He said that although Mr. Kafka had made his mortgage payments with interest through February, there were indications that animals from the zoo had been relocated.

According to Mr. Cohen, Judge Perfilio’s decree that the orangutan be relocated by April 14 does not violate the injunction against removing any animals from the zoo as long as the Terrys and Judge Kentz agree to the move.

However, the attorney confirmed that he recently learned from the Fish, Game and Wildlife Division that a monkey had been transferred from the zoo to a farm in Pennsylvania and that a Burmese python belonging to the zoo was discovered in a pet shop on Route 22.

Mr. Cohen said that the monkey will remain at the farm, and veterinarians from the Fish, Game and Wildlife Division were to examine the python. Mr. Kafka could not be reached for comment earlier this week.

At the hearing next month, according to Mr. Cohen, the judge is expected to determine whether or not Mr. O’Connor should continue as legal custodian or whether Mr. Kafka should continue to operate the zoo on a day-to-day basis. He commented that Judge Kentz "needs to get a feeling of where we are and what we should do from here on out."

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