If the much-contested fight over Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary takes any longer to resolve itself, the monkeys at the heart of the dispute might start evolving into higher primates.
The Howard County Board of Appeals voted last night to delay its hearing on Frisky's after lawyers for Colleen Layton, owner of the Woodstock sanctuary, introduced a surprising new strategy designed to keep the center running.
The lawyers told the board that the sanctuary is seeking a federal license as an "exhibitor" of monkeys, which could help Layton get around a county prohibition on keeping wild or exotic animals.
To the relief of Layton and the roughly 75 supporters who attended the hearing, the board voted unanimously to give Frisky's three months to get the license before hearing its application for county zoning approval.
"They're telling us, `Go get the primate permit and then we'll take care of you,' said David Z. Kaufman, one of three lawyers volunteering to represent Layton. "It's good."
Frisky's opponents said the 3-acre center on Old Frederick Road has a long way to go.
"They have to do a lot more to get federal approval," said lawyer David A. Carney, who is representing neighbors opposed to the sanctuary.
Layton has operated the sanctuary since 1994, caring for several hundred wounded and homeless pets and wild creatures a year, in addition to the 27 monkeys - by her count - that she keeps permanently.
Last year, county officials told Layton she would have to get formal zoning approval after receiving complaints from neighbors and an Anne Arundel County man who had to turn over his monkey to Layton after it attacked a woman in a Glen Burnie bar.
The facility could continue to operate, county officials said, as long as it was approved as a "charitable institution" by the Board of Appeals.
The board has been reluctant to give approval, noting that monkeys are technically illegal under the county's ban on keeping exotic animals.
`Exhibitor' license sought
Last night, Frisky's lawyers said they had found a solution. The sanctuary has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a license as an "exhibitor" of monkeys. A federal inspector has visited the site and given it high marks, they said.
Carney questioned this approach. It won't be easy for Layton to qualify as an exhibitor, he said, because she has maintained for years that her sanctuary is solely for the care of needy animals, not for displaying them.
"She's always talked about how dangerous [the monkeys] are and how important it is to keep them from the public," he said.
If Layton gets an exhibitor license, Carney said, it will be difficult for her to win county approval as a mere sanctuary. The county's zoning rules don't allow for zoos, he noted.
"She'll say anything at any time to protect her special species," he said.
Layton's lawyers said it would be possible to get the license and still apply to the county as a sanctuary because the license wouldn't require Layton to make the facility any more like a zoo. She could qualify as an exhibitor simply because people who arrive to make donations or adopt animals peek into the primate house while they're there.
"There's no indication of having turnstiles installed," said lawyer Sherman Robinson. "There will be no change in how [Frisky's] is administered.