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Big Cat owner loses court battle, plans to appeal

Karl Mitchell has hit a legal roadblock in his desire to keep tigers in their current location in Pahrump.

Mitchell of Big Cat Encounters was ordered to remove tigers from the property of Ray “The Flagman” Mielzynski at 6061 N. Woodchips Drive under an order issued by District Court Judge Kimberly Wanker last week.

Wanker granted an order of summary judgment requested by Nye County, which filed suit against Mitchell, Mielzynski and Big Cat Encounters in January. But Mitchell, who was originally denied a conditional use permit required to house his tigers in a rural homestead zone by the Pahrump Regional Planning Commission back in 2012, said there won’t be a roundup of his big cats any time soon. He plans an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.

“At this point there’s nothing going on,” Mitchell said. “The judge did side with the county but we think she’s in error. She even said she could be in error and she stayed the action on this until it’s appealed to the state.”

The defendants claimed the property was an animal sanctuary before the passage of the county zoning ordinance in 2007 and thus is grandfathered into the regulations.

“Since 1994 it was a private animal sanctuary and that’s the usage issue,” Mitchell said. “I believe the Supreme Court will find if it was used for that purpose for all that time, then it’s grandfathered usage.”

He said Mielzynski’s brother built an animal sanctuary which continued after his death. Mitchell said the location, at the far north end of Pahrump about a mile away from the nearest home, lies on a county wildlife corridor. Mielzynski got his nickname by standing out on the highway waving the flag, he also is a keen court watcher and ran for sheriff numerous times.

Nye County Animal Control Officer Vance Payne said he could find no evidence an animal sanctuary existed there before zoning took effect. He said it was a county zoning issue and wasn’t in charge of the removal.

The judge’s order, issued Nov. 18, said no special condition animals existed on the property before the passage of zoning June 20, 2007. The defendants didn’t have a conditional use permit for the animals and failed to comply with requests to voluntarily abate the nuisance.

“The matters admitted at hearing clearly supports the fact that no establishment owned or operated by a licensed profit or non-profit organization existed on or at the property known as 6061 N. Woodchips prior to the adoption by Nye County of the comprehensive rezoning map in June 2007,” the judge ruled. “There is no genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of an animal sanctuary as defined in Nye County Code … or special conditions animals existing on or at the real property prior to 2007.”

She adds Nye County Code states any use of the property contrary to the provisions of the zoning ordinance shall be declared unlawful and a public nuisance.

In a general statement on planning, Wanker wrote, “Continued violation of the Nye County Code is unlawful and interferes with the power and authority of Nye County to regulate the long-range financial impact of the application of particular land to particular kinds of development, to preserve the relative suitability of the land for appropriate development, to ensure the protection of existing neighborhoods and communities and to promote the health and the general welfare of all residents of Nye County.”

Mitchell blamed animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for pursuing the case.

“It’s the animal rights people who don’t live in this town, don’t live in this state. They really don’t have a dog in this fight,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he could move out of the Pahrump Regional Planning District and have his tigers and still live in Nye County legally. He said there are now 11 tigers, including a “liger,” a cross between a tiger and a lion, by Christmas that could increase to 15.

“Which is another contention. Well if it’s legal in other areas of the county without a conditional use permit, then what is this all about?” Mitchell asked. The matter should be about the usage of the land, not the person, he said, adding, “it’s been turned into a personal vendetta by the county versus the usage of the land.”

Mitchell has a long history in Pahrump. He operated Big Cat Encounters at another location when he was contracted as Nye County animal control officer in 2000. But it lasted only a year, before there were criminal charges over everything from theft to animal cruelty. The charges were dismissed but Mitchell eventually served time for stealing a vehicle belonging to a member of Big Cat Encounters. While in prison, his animals were transferred to an animal sanctuary in Texas.

The RPC deadlocked 3-3 when Mitchell first applied for a conditional use permit to house his tigers at the Flagman’s property in June 2012. The RPC was told to vote again on the permit to break the tie in August, 2012 and voted 4-1 to deny it. Nye County Commissioners then reversed the RPC decision by a 3-2 vote in October 2012, allowing him to house the tigers, when Mitchell presented 583 signatures in favor, some people from as far away as New Zealand, Greece and Brazil.

PETA countered that Mitchell had a history of violating federal and local laws, and of animal neglect and cruelty. PETA claimed his permit to exhibit tigers was permanently revoked. Mitchell has claimed his property is private, not a zoo. But his website asked for donations to see the animals.

In February 2013, the RPC voted to revoke Mitchell’s conditional use permit, because he allegedly exhibited tigers on the property in violation of his county permit. Mitchell said he allowed a photo shoot with the tigers for a friend. The permit comes with a condition that required Mitchell to comply with all federal, state, county and town regulations.

This time Nye County Commissioners in April 2013 voted 3-2 to uphold the RPC decision revoking the conditional use permit. Commissioners Frank Carbone and Donna Cox voted against the motion.

Mitchell appealed to district court. Both Mitchell and Mielzynski appeared in court representing themselves during a hearing on the summary judgment petition Oct. 16, attorney Jonathon Nelson appeared on behalf of Big Cat Encounters.

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