BY ALEXANDRA ANTONOPOULOS
A divided Wellington Equestrian Preserve Committee voted 3-2 on Wednesday to oppose a proposal to house black bears in a recently created wildlife sanctuary.
The committee met to discuss a petition from Matt Carfi regarding his proposal to allow black bears in his newly organized Wellington Wildlife Sanctuary, located within the Palm Beach Point community.
Carfi and his wife have housed and maintained exotic animals since the early 1980s and moved to Palm Beach Point in 1992. In August 2012, the couple founded the Wellington Wildlife Sanctuary, receiving nonprofit status last October.
The Carfis are currently in the process of gaining approval for a Class 1 Exotic Animals License and have already secured state and federal approvals, with the exception of actually constructing the enclosures and receiving the final approval from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The issue at the center of the debate was whether or not an exception should be made to Palm Beach Point’s exotic animals policy for Carfi’s bears. The two black bears that Carfi is attempting to rescue are currently housed at the Space Farms Zoo & Museum in Sussex, N.J.
Wellington planner Cory Cramer presented the proposal on Carfi’s behalf, while Judy Berens, director of the nearby Panther Ridge Conservation Center, sat in on the meeting to give her endorsement of the proposal.
Carfi’s petition for conditional use of Class 1 Exotic Animals states that the bears would be housed at his sanctuary, which is on his residential property. Carfi fielded questions from committee members Michael Whitlow and Dr. Kristy Lund regarding the safety and security of his proposed enclosures.
“In that enclosure that you see,” Carfi responded, “we are going to double fence it.”
He referenced the rendering that he had included with his proposal showing the exact positioning of the proposed enclosures on his property, relative to his neighbor’s property.
Carfi stressed that his proposal goes well above and beyond all state requirements.
Although impressed with the completeness of the proposal, Committee Chair Cynthia Gardner wanted to know how deeply the village had researched black bears in local wildlife sanctuaries and whether they had consulted any experts before bringing it to the committee.
“What backup due diligence was done on this?” she asked. “Did you talk to any experts or get any outside opinions; call any people who have similar facilities with regard to bears?”
Cramer explained that Carfi had supplied her with numerous letters of recommendation and information along with the application.
Carfi jumped in and cited the credentials of the FWC expert who approved the license and the fact that the inspector would be able to conduct surprise inspections on the facilities.
When the floor was opened to public comments, Berens testified to Carfi’s knowledge of exotic wildlife and to his ability to manage the animals.
However, not everyone was convinced that the bears wouldn’t pose a safety issue for the community.
Palm Beach Point resident Jim Whisenand said that he felt the proposal was “factually deficient” and that it, “violates the restrictive covenants that have governed Palm Beach Point since 1981 and still continue to do so.”
Whisenand relayed his fears at living in such close proximity to the sanctuary and urged the committee to consider the danger it might put residents and their animals in. “It’s a really disquieting feeling,” he said.
Additionally, Whisenand was concerned at how many of wildlife sanctuaries might be approved in Palm Beach Point if Carfi’s petition was approved and set a precedent for future applicants.
After public comments, Gardner revealed information that she had received prior to the meeting after speaking to several area experts on black bears and wildlife sanctuaries.
“As I said before, it looks like such a wonderful, complete, thorough presentation, and my first reaction is, ‘this is wonderful.’ But then I started to think about it a little more and made some phone calls,” Gardner said.
She noted her concerns about the predatory nature of the bears, especially considering the community they are proposed to become a part of.
“Bears that have been in captivity are more dangerous than bears in the wild,” Gardner said. “We’re a community that takes great pride in being an equestrian community. This is our goal, this is our pride… With all respect to what you’re trying to accomplish, does it really serve the community?”
Gardner said that while many people do not have an issue with the Carfi proposal, after weighing the documentation and her own research, she felt that she could not support the idea.
Committee Member Linda Smith Faver made a motion to not recommend the proposal to the Wellington Village Council, which was seconded by Committee Member Carlos Arellano.
The committee voted 3-2 to reject Carfi’s petition, with Gardner, Smith Faver and Arellano opposing the proposal, and Whitlow and Lund in favor.