MOUNT VERNON — Wolf hybrids and cougars in Skagit County face stricter regulations after county commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that will regulate potentially dangerous wild animals.

The ordinance prohibits many potentially dangerous wild animals from being owned in the county, unless in an institution such as one accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The ordinance is modeled on state law, but adds two additional restrictions that would prohibit wolf hybrids and all cougars and prohibit animals regardless of the date acquired. State law allows animals acquired before July 22, 2007.

County commissioners said their decision was based on public safety.

“We had quite a few neighbors come in who did not feel safe in their neighborhood, in their own house, and I think that’s a concern as a county commissioner,” Commissioner Ron Wesen said.

Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt cited statistics from Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, showing a higher rate of injuries and deaths from exotic animals held privately rather than those in zoos.

It’s not that people can’t keep exotic animals, he said, but they would have to jump through more hoops to get accredited to keep animals safely.

Tuesday’s decision was met with anger and tears by supporters of Predators of the Heart, a wildlife education business located in unincorporated Skagit County near Anacortes. Supporters of the business, which owns 93 animals including cougars and wolf hybrids, say the law specifically targeted it, brought on by complaints from neighbors.

Commissioner Sharon Dillon said one entity is not being targeted, but rather this is the latest step in the county cleaning up its animal codes.

Five neighbors of Predators of the Heart filed complaints with the county and many spoke at a public hearing earlier this month, expressing concerns about public safety, noise and food scraps dropped in their yards.

Supporters of the business said the enclosure is safe, the animals are healthy, and the company provides valuable education programs.

While the commissioners discussed when to make the effective date of the ordinance, Predators of the Heart owner Dave Coleburn asserted the law targeted his company specifically.

“There’s only one person that has those animals and you guys all know that,” he said in response to Dahlstedt’s discussion about giving animal owners more time to find places for their animals.

The ordinance provides a grace period until Dec. 31 for animal owners to figure out their next steps.

Coleburn said he wasn’t sure what he would do with his animals. He said the opposition from Predator’s neighbors was based on lies and they won because “money wins,” he said.

“It’s just not right,” he said. “It’s not right.”

He said he is concerned he will have to euthanize animals because there aren’t many places for them to go, causing a few of his supporters to cry.

It is “undetermined” if Predators can qualify as one of the exceptions as a wildlife sanctuary, he said.

The neighbors opposed to Predators of the Heart didn’t lie in their anecdotes of seeing escaped animals and dealing with scraps of food in their yards, said Luke Loeffler, who was hired by the neighbors to represent them.

“We had the facts on our side, and he had the opinions on his side,” Loeffler said.

The neighbors spent money on advertisements and mailings, Loeffler said. But money wasn’t given to the commissioners, and the neighbors didn’t have any more influence than the supporters who spoke at the hearing, he said.

Predators volunteer Sunny Lee said she anticipates a long legal battle from the neighbors if Predators tries to qualify as a sanctuary.

“If anyone has a winning Lotto ticket, we could use a good lawyer,” she said.

— Reporter Rachel Lerman: 360-416-2145, rlerman@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Rachel_SVH, facebook.com/RachelReports

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