COURTESY SOUTHWEST WILDLIFE CONSERVATION CENTER The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center faces a lawsuit from former Georgetown University School of Medicine professor Seth Gortler over concerns of noise and road damage from visitors.
The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center faces a lawsuit from former Georgetown University School of Medicine professor Seth Gortler over concerns of noise and road damage from visitors.

Former Georgetown University School of Medicine professor Seth Gortler has drawn media attention with his current lawsuit against the Scottsdale, Ariz. Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center over its nighttime noise and the road damage brought by center visitors.

Gortler taught pharmacology at Georgetown before purchasing property adjacent to the sanctuary in 2012.

The center, which has been in operation for almost 22 years, aims to rehabilitate native wildlife such as coyotes, bears and the endangered Mexican gray wolf.

The currently pending suit terms the noise and visitors brought by the center’s operations a “criminal nuisance” and asks that a judge order the SWCC to relocate its noisemaking animals and ensure the county’s road is not damaged by visitors.

Gortler is also urging the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department, which oversees the region where the center is located, not to issue a permanent special-use permit to the SWCC until the sanctuary complies with his requests.

The center currently holds a temporary-use permit, which allows a limited number of tours. The permanent permit, which the center is seeking, would allow tours and educational programs to continue for an elongated period.

According to SWCC Founder Linda Searles, the litigation places pressure on the center that could interfere with the care of its animals.

“We have no money, we have no other land to move to. Certainly, it’s something you don’t even want to think about that there would be all these animals with no place to go,” Searles said. “He’s saying that we are a private nuisance and also a public nuisance and under a public nuisance that allows the government to come in and seize property. The property being the wolves and the coyotes, because he wants them removed from the property and he wants us to be banned from ever having them again.”

Gortler said the noise has been a persistent problem and suggested alternatives to the current situation.

“The zoo has the ability to move the noise-making animal cages to a different part of their vast 10+ acre property. I have no issue with the animals that don’t make noise all night – just the canines,” Gortler wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Alternatively, SWCC has the option of moving or giving their noise-making animals to one of the many other wildlife preserves where they don’t have to be locked in cages and on display for the entertainment of paying tourists.”

Gortler also took issue with SWCC’s self-designation because of the permanent residence of some of animals at the center and the tours the sanctuary offers.

“SWCC sells itself as a ‘wildlife rehabilitation center’ but they’re actually licensed by the state as a zoo—which allows them to keep animals permanently (the wolves and coyotes) and to conduct tours,” Gortler wrote.

However, Searles said that the tours differ from those provided by zoos in that they are guided and seek to educate visitors.

“We do tours, which are not like a zoo where you walk in, take a ticket and you walk around,” Searles said. “We have somebody that guides them through so they don’t disturb the animals and our animals that are on exhibit are animals that have been confiscated by law enforcement from cruelty situations.”

Along with the nighttime noise, Gortler raised issues with the road damage brought by center visitors.

“The other problem is that we live a mile down a dirt road, and the center brings in thousands of paying tourists each year, which takes a tremendous toll on the road,” Gortler wrote. “They perform no maintenance on the road, and it’s rutted and torn apart as a result of all their traffic.”

Searles said that the SWCC has made several efforts to address Gortler’s complaints.

“In order to appease him when we have people out, because we still have people, we now have tours 30 days in a six month period under the temporary special use permit, so we bought an old water truck and we are watering the road’s parking lot to try and keep the dust down, which is not an easy thing to do in the desert and we are not the only ones to use that road,” Searles said.

Gortler claimed that he has made several attempts to resolve the issue without litigation.

“Before approaching SWCC, I tried installing triple pane windows in my bedroom as well as, insulated metal roller shutters, heavy, sound-blocking curtains, earplugs, white noise machines, basically everything I could think of,” Gortler wrote. “I gave up trying to negotiate and proceeded with the lawsuit only after I attempted 1) my own noise mitigation efforts failed, 2) trying to speak civilly to them failed and 3) after I attempted to donate generously to the Zoo to build a wall or relocate the canines, and made the offer in writing.”

Richelle Fatheree, another neighbor of the center, created an online petition against the lawsuit. The petition will be delivered to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on April 6 and currently has over 167,000 signatures.

“We believe that since the sanctuary had already been at its current location for 18 years before Mr. Gortler purchased the property next door, it was his responsibility to investigate the neighborhood before investing in real estate in the area,” the petition reads. “Dirt roads and animal noises are two of the many joys of living in rural unincorporated Scottsdale. If people don’t appreciate a natural environment, they should avoid moving into it.”

Gortler expressed displeasure at the way the petition described the context of the lawsuit.

“Honestly SWCC’s and Rachelle Fatheree’s petition is so grotesquely biased and misrepresentative, I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’ I almost felt like signing it myself! I can understand how others have been duped into doing the same,” Gortler wrote.

According to Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri, the sanctuary serves an essential function and its tours are helpful to the community.

“The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center is critical to our community. Their mission to rescue native wild animals is an integral part of living in Arizona,” Chucri wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I fully support the Special Use Permit and will continue to work with my colleagues on the Board and the planning department to complete this process as quickly as possible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article was titled “Former GUMC Professor Attempts to Close Wildlife Center.” This was a mischaracterization of the lawsuit and we apologize to Mr. Gortler for the error. 

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