Surrounded by her loyal band of supporters, tears of joy slowly streamed down the face of Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary owner Colleen Layton as she listened to the five Board of Appeals members, one by one, say "grant."
The board unanimously granted the Woodstock animal sanctuary a zoning exception Monday, Oct. 17, allowing Frisky's to keep its 22 monkeys. The decision came after more than a year of hearings and a 12-year legal battle between Frisky's and its neighbors, Richard Wyckoff and his wife, Julianne Tuttle.
"I'm ecstatic and relieved," Layton said. "After all these years, the merits of our experience and our history finally spoke for itself."
But the board's decision comes with a condition that Frisky's cannot take in any more primates, except on a temporary basis, which the board defined as seven days.
"I thought that was pretty short," Layton said of the seven-day limit. But she said she and her volunteer staff would quickly look for new homes for any primates brought to the sanctuary.
Wyckoff, who had argued that it was unsafe to house monkeys in a residential neighborhood, said he was "very disappointed" in the decision, and that he might appeal it to the court system.
He said he and his wife are concerned that the board ruling does not prohibit Frisky's from taking in other exotic animals, such as crocodiles or tigers.
If Wyckoff and Tuttle do appeal, Layton said she's ready for the challenge.
"I'm not a quitter," she said.
The Frisky's case dates back to 1999, when county zoning officials, following an anonymous complaint, cited Layton for operating a charity without the appropriate zoning exception. In 2004, the Howard County Board of Appeals granted her the zoning exception under the condition she got rid of the roughly 30 monkeys she housed.
Though some have since died, 22 monkeys remain at Frisky's, while the sanctuary has spent the past seven years fighting the board's decision.
Frisky's appeals reached the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, which remanded the case back to the board to consider in the context of a 2004 animal control law change that allows animal sanctuaries to care for exotic animals.
The board's most recent proceedings began in August of 2010. Throughout the past year of scattered hearings, hundreds of people attended the Board of Appeals hearings to show support for Frisky's and its monkeys. The many supporters who testified said they worried about what would happen to the monkeys if they were not allowed to remain at Frisky's.
In opposition, Wyckoff and Tuttle, whose property on Old Frederick Road shares a driveway with the sanctuary, had about a half-dozen other Woodstock residents who live near Frisky's on their side. The neighbors testified that they are concerned about their safety should one of the monkeys escape.
But it's not about the numbers, Frisky's attorney Fred Lauer said in his closing arguments Monday before the board deliberated. Frisky's supporters, he said, "are the people who had firsthand knowledge … that this place is safe."
The opponents, Lauer said, have never visited Frisky's property, with the exception of Wyckoff and Tuttle who last did so in 1999.
Wyckoff's attorney Thomas Meachum, in his closing arguments, countered that the supporters do not live close enough to Frisky's to be adversely affected by the exotic animals.
"The people who live near it were the ones who testified, and they're opposed to it," he said. "Even Frisky's recognizes that these animals are dangerous."
Temporary primate sanctuary?
Though the board's final decision was unanimous, its decision on the condition narrowly passed with a 3-2 vote.
Frisky's testified that they would accept a condition of approval that they not take in any new monkeys, and all five of the members agreed it was a good idea. They differed on whether or not to allow Frisky's to take in monkeys on a temporary basis.
"When it comes to the primates and the exotics, I think the community is concerned with the health aspects of it," board member John Lederer said. "If you have a new primate that comes in, and there's no (health) history on it … I'm a little concerned about any new primates coming in a temporary basis and coming loose."
Board member Henry Eigles also opposed the condition because it allowed for temporary housing of additional monkeys.
"Bringing in other animals, I think is just increasing the risk of escape," he said.
In response, board chairman James Walsh said: "Life involves an amount of risk that you can't avoid."
Given the evidence that a primate has never escaped from Frisky's, Walsh said he believes it's a reasonable risk to allow the sanctuary to temporarily take in additional monkeys. But Eigles disagreed.
"There are children in the area," he said. "They are animals that everybody agrees do pose a danger."
Board member James Howard said if a primate were brought to Frisky's, the sanctuary would need at least a little time to make arrangements for where else it could go.
"You just don't Fed Ex it," he said, suggesting the board could define temporary.
Still, Eigles and Lederer objected.
"As far as I'm concerned it's a problem whether it's 10 minutes or 10 days," Lederer said. "If someone's bringing a troubled monkey there, they're not giving it away because it's a baby doll, they're giving it away because it's a troubled monkey."