Judge invites high court review in tiger case

Fifth District Judge Kimberly Wanker said she sympathized with the concept of preserving endangered animals, but said the law is the law, in ruling Karl Mitchell, owner of Big Cat Encounters, had to remove his tigers from property owned by Ray “The Flagman” Mielzynski at 6061 N. Woodchips Road.

Wanker added that having the animals on the 20-acre parcel doesn’t comply with the law.

“That’s the issue that’s before me, not whether I like the tigers or don’t like the tigers,” Wanker said. “I think it’s admirable, they are an endangered species. We haven’t had a report tigers are on the loose in Pahrump, obviously you’re taking very good care of them.”

Wanker stayed the order as Mitchell is expected to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. A video recording of the hearing wasn’t available by press time before an article that ran in Wednesday’s Pahrump Valley Times.

“The Supreme Court may say, ‘Judge Wanker you’re completely wrong,’ and I don’t have a problem with that. I will give you that opportunity,” Wanker said during the hearing in October. “But when I see the straight law and what I have to do as a district court judge, I have to apply the law. My personal feelings have to be set aside. I have to do what the law says.”

Mitchell claimed Mielzynski’s brother, Robert Mielzynski, used the property as an animal sanctuary since 1988, before the enactment of the Nye County Zoning Ordinance in 2007 exempting the property from regulations in Nye County Code to obtain a conditional use permit.

“His brother kept dogs, rescued animals, water was set up for the wildlife that live in that area, burros, tortoises, protected animals,” Mitchell said. “No permit was required by Nye County for that use. All the way up to 2007 that was a continued use for that property. It was a sanctuary for animals.”

The judge didn’t buy that argument, Melzynski’s late brother couldn’t just turn on the water for animals and call it a sanctuary. The judge added the Big Cat Encounters website invited tourists to drive out from Las Vegas and pay a donation to have their pictures taken with the tigers.

“I think the requirements were that you were a non-profit organization and at this point all I’ve seen in response to that is Mr. Mielzynski’s brother basically took in stray animals and provided a quote, sanctuary, for them, a safe place of keeping,” Wanker said during a hearing on the Nye County request for summary judgment Oct. 16 and the county’s motion to dismiss Mitchell’s counterclaims.

Jonathon Nelson, the attorney for Big Cat Encounters, said a jury should be allowed to decide the matter.

Deputy District Attorney Marla Zlotek argued an animal sanctuary had to be registered as a non-profit organization. Wanker said the county’s definition of a sanctuary and Mitchell’s definition are two different things.

Mitchell said other animal hoarders and collectors in Pahrump are trying to save dogs and cats, they’re not required by Nye County to have a license unless someone files a complaint. He said other owners of tigers were grandfathered into the regulations.

Mielzynski said the 11 tigers are an endangered species that are well taken care of.

“I threw him a rope when he needed a rope and I’m not going to let go of that rope,” the Flagman said.

Wanker sympathized with the Flagman’s intent.

“My hat’s off to Mr. Mielzynski to say, you know what, I got 20 acres, let’s bring the tigers over there, they’re not bothering anybody, so I understand where you’re coming from,” Wanker said. “In that regard I think that is a really noble thing, because I have over the years picked up animals that people have dumped out.”

Wanker wondered why Mitchell applied for a conditional use permit at one point when he claims a permit wasn’t needed. Mitchell received a conditional use permit after Nye County Commissioners overruled a Pahrump Regional Planning Commission recommendation in October 2012, but then revoked it in April 2013, amid accusations he was exhibiting the tigers without a federal license.

Mitchell claimed the county responded because of threatening letters from animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“Part and parcel to this are the bullying tactics used by Nye County planning,” Mitchell replied. He said there were many letters sent to the planning director where Big Cat Encounters made their claim for an exemption but “we were constantly steamrolled by threats of evictions and we had no choice but to attempt to comply.”

Kayla Mitchell, read a statement at the hearing that there have been no calls for service on the property. She said the area is not likely to be developed in the next 20 years and asked to wait until the revised Pahrump Master Plan is approved, which may remove their property from the Pahrump Regional Planning District.

Relocating the tigers outside the regional planning district would be extremely stressful for the tigers who would have to be tranquilized, Kayla Mitchell said. “The Endangered Species Act states government will not take action detrimental to these species,” she said.

Wanker invited Mitchell to file an action in federal court on whether the county ordinance is constitutional.

Mitchell said former Nye County Emergency Services Director Brent Jones gave him a waiver from the Nye County Code when the tigers were moved based on hardship conditions and because Mielzynski didn’t have any neighbors at that site, after the EMS ended up in possession of his tigers after an eviction in 2010.

“That way Nye County gets out of possessory ownership of the animals,” Mitchell said.

One of Mitchell’s complaints was that the county interfered with his ability to receive contributions to continue his operations, an argument Wanker dismissed.

“I don’t understand what actions the county took to interfere with the economic advantage and what economic advantage was supposedly disrupted and what actual harm was suffered,” Wanker said.