Fur-Ever Wild, the wildlife petting zoo that doubles as a furrier slaughterhouse, added another chapter to its tangled story Tuesday inside Judge Karen Asphaug's Dakota County courtroom in Hastings.
Lawyers representing owner Terri Petter and boyfriend Daniel Storlie asked that Julie La Fleur, a Maplewood attorney and private investigator who's helping with Eureka Township's lawsuit against animal exhibitors, be removed from the proceedings.
Officials of the rural municipality on the far southern end of the metro area claim Fur-Ever Wild flouts a local exotic animals ordinance, which prohibits owning the likes of wolves, bobcats, and cougars. It seeks an injunction, township attorney Chad Lemmons tells City Pages, that would force Petter to get rid of "all her animals" — about 150 in total, ranging from wolves to cougars to deer.
La Fleur is Lemmons pro bono muscle. But Erik Hansen, one of the lawyers representing the "outdoor educational center," argued her history as a longtime critic of Petter and Fur-Wild Ever disqualified her from participating in the trial.
This was no small moment.
Nobody knows more about the operation than La Fleur. The family law specialist turned wildlife detective after reading about Petter's photography workshops, in which amateur shutterbugs pay hundreds of dollars for Kodak moments with wolves. In La Fleur's mind, Petter's Facebook posts peddling an undying love of animals didn't jibe with Fur-Ever Wild's advertised zest for hunting.
Her hunt for information would uncover old court records showing a furrier hid behind the facade of a wildlife exhibit.
Asphaug's courtroom reconvened early afternoon Tuesday with a ruling that La Fleur could stay, but with one condition. She wouldn't be allowed to cross-examine Petter.
"The heart of the case," Lemmons told the court, is the animals ordinance. Enacted on June 7, 2005, it outlaws possessing and pelting wolves, which Petter has admitted doing in court records. The animal exhibit, moreover, has never been permitted for use on Petter's 57-acre property, said Lemmons.
Hansen accused the township of itching to enforce the exotics ban now "because of outside pressures," while neglecting history.
During town board meetings that took place"over years," Petter and Storlie drew the conclusion time and again that "what you are doing is fine and what you are doing is legal," said Hansen, "and my clients relied on that."
Hansen also argued that Storlie's work in removing nuisance animals at Airlake Airport qualifies him as an animal control officer, who are exempt from the rules of the exotics ordinance.
But it's a "grandfathered" clause that may prove to be Fur-Ever Wild's best escape from the mess. If it had 125 animals, for example, prior to June 7, 2005, than the law says it's permitted to have the same number post-ordinance, said Hansen.
Today, Petter and Storlie will have the chance to prove how many animals they had when as they're both expected to take the stand.
It will then be up to Judge Asphaug to decide if this marks the end for the pet-n-pelt operation, or if the battle to put Fur-Ever Wild out of business is a lost war.
A ruling is expected in 90 to 120 days.
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