By Mark Waite
The Pahrump Regional Planning Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to revoke Karl Mitchell’s conditional use permit for an animal sanctuary to house tigers and a liger at 6061 N. Woodchips Rd.
The RPC deadlocked 3-3 last June on whether to grant the permit, then held another vote Aug. 15 where members voted 4-1 against it. But Nye County commissioners overrode the planning board by a 3-2 vote on Oct. 15.
Mitchell has a right to appeal the revocation to the county commission again after this latest rejection. He has also threatened to sue the county.
A case was brought against Mitchell for violating the terms of his conditional use permit, which prohibits the sanctuary from being open to the public or exhibiting animals. The RPC was furnished photos of people posing with Mitchell’s animals. He is also required to have permits from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the USDA and other agencies.
Mitchell was supposed to appear at two prior revocation hearings before the RPC since the beginning of the year but asked for continuances each time.
Robert Gibbens, director of the western region for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an Oct. 22 letter to Commissioner Dan Schinhofen, said Mitchell doesn’t possess a license under the Animal Welfare Act to exhibit his animals.
Mitchell was assessed a $16,775 penalty in 2001 for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In 2010, in an order denying a petition for reconsideration, he was assessed joint penalties of $67,000 for Animal Welfare Act violations and an additional civil penalty of $19,500 for failure to cease and desist, Gibbens said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals PETA issued a press release Tuesday urging the USDA to pursue criminal charges against Mitchell for disregarding federal law and public safety, exhibiting his big cats without an exhibitor’s license. They wrote to the RPC to urge the board to revoke his permit.
“Of all the despicable animal exhibitors PETA has encountered, Karl Mitchell — who thumbs his nose at public safety and the law every time he exhibits a tiger — is one of the worst,” said PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Delcianna Winders. “The time for warnings and civil penalties has long passed. The USDA must press criminal charges and Nye County needs to enforce the local laws that make it illegal for Mitchell to have big cats in Pahrump.”
Mitchell read a prepared statement Wednesday. He said the RPC needs to stick to its land use decisions.
“The subject property is correctly zoned according to your county code and animal control has inspected it,” Mitchell said. “Our activities would not be the subject of scrutiny if we resided outside the purview of the RPC.”
Mitchell added, “it would seem to be an abuse of equal protection, an abuse of discretion and an abuse of the process to place the county in a position of carrying the water for the USDA.”
Mitchell said the county violated his constitutional rights for making USDA compliance an issue.
“The attempts to use the USDA letter is a slippery slope that will undoubtedly result in a lawsuit,” he said.
“The letter from the USDA director does not constitute an indictment or charges,” he said. “The cycle of animal rights group, jealous competitors making complaints is a causal case for USDA to make an investigation.”
He said a judge ruled in 2010 their activities on the Internet didn’t constitute regulated activities. Since 2009 Mitchell said he hasn’t received any charges or communication from the USDA.
His recent appearance on NatGeo Wild was severely edited to escalate the USDA conflict, Mitchell said. If they have to comply with regulations, Mitchell said his wife Kayla qualifies for a license.
“We live in an area that borders Pahrump planning and should be exempt. This continued harassment and bullying has resulted in my PTSD worsening, leaving me anxious and fearful of what you guys will pull next,” Mitchell said.
“Compliance with USDA with non-regulated activities places the county in a position to defend arbitrary and capricious actions,” Mitchell said.
PETA said Mitchell’s website advertised direct contact with dangerous big cats, in violation of federal law. Kayla Mitchell said their website has been updated and doesn’t contain any invitation for the public. Thus, she said, they’re not subject to regulation.
PETA said Mitchell made threatening remarks about the USDA during an episode of National Geographic’s Animal Intervention when he said, “those people could not ever come here without having one of these tigers eat them” and if someone tried to take his cats, he’d shoot them.
The discussion became a little testy when Mitchell questioned whether the RPC had a quorum. RPC Chairman Terry Hand resigned and the Pahrump Town Board has yet to appoint a liaision after town board Chair Harley Kulkin was recently rejected by the county commission. RPC member John Koenig said they had a quorum and reminded Mitchell his board has the authority to issue conditional use permits.
“He who giveth can take it away,” Koenig said.
Mitchell said, “Nobody is challenging your right, what we’re challenging is whether you’re right in doing something like that.”
Linda Halko Crossley said Mitchell’s sanctuary, which is located on the property of Ray “The Flagman” Mielzynski, has disrupted her neighborhood. She said the residents were never notified, Planning Director Steve Osborne said he notified people 500 feet away about the conditional use permit.
It’s located on 18 acres zoned rural homestead.
“I came here to Pahrump to go ahead and have a ranch and have horses and I’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s just less than a mile from where he’s temporarily housing his wild cats,” Crossley said.
“They’re disrupting the neighborhood, they’re disrupting my horses, find a different temporary holding area for his cats,” she said.
Crossley said she knows performers like Siegfried and Roy who had a show involving big cats.
“The cats have got to go. My horses are stressed out to the hilt. They smell blood, they smell urine. Yesterday there was a pack of six coyotes circling between my barn and the neighbors; she has a 3-year-old child and she was screaming,” Crossley said.
The property isn’t zoned for wild cats, she said. A little girl can’t even ride her bike for fear a cat will get loose, while her dogs are a nervous wreck.
“There’s children out there, there’s horses out there, I want my ranch back and I want my health back just as much as he does. I want those cats gone,” Crossley said.
John Bushko, a volunteer with Mitchell’s Big Cat Encounters, countered there are horse corrals on their ranch. They use it as a staging area for horse rescues for Diane Davis and Dream Chaser Horse Ranch, he said.
“A lot of county commissioners have visited, they will tell you it’s a peaceful place,” Bushko said.
Mitchell said he received emails from neighbors, one neighbor said they were quite content with the animals being there.
Mitchell concluded: “If someone else is upset I’m sorry but I don’t think it’s the tigers’ fault. The bottom line is we’re not involved in any regulated activities. We’re at odds with the USDA and we will continue to be at odds as long as animal rights people make complaints. Those complaints have to be checked out. But since 2009 there’s not been one problem with USDA that’s been presented to us.”
RPC member Greg Hafen II asked Mitchell to explain the photos of him exhibiting the animals on Facebook.
“It was a private photo shoot done on my property which is allowed. If you have pets you can do a private photo shoot, especially if you’re not doing it for commerce,” he said. “It’s exhibiting when you’re involved in commerce, when there’s money paid or something given to you.”
Koenig didn’t get a motion to revoke the permit at first and it appeared to fail. Eventually Hafen got planning staff to clarify they recommended the revocation and made the motion to revoke, based on the USDA letter and other findings.