Dan Vitilio shares his birds, goats, lambs and pigs with the school and church groups that visit his Kingsville ranch. Along the way he added Puddy to the menagerie and was told he needed a permit from the government.
He applied and Baltimore County turned him down. He went to court and lost. And now lawmakers are considering a bill that would ensure that Puddy - a 48-pound Siberian lynx - has to find a new home.
"We've taken every safety precaution," says Vitilio, 47. He's talking about the double-walled cage and the moat that separate the wild cat from the kids. He says that Puddy has been declawed and neutered, and that the animal is monitored by a video surveillance camera.
But county officials say the 3-year-old animal poses a safety risk.
"The legislation would resolve a potentially dangerous situation with this wild animal in a residential community," says Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman.
The bill is the latest shot in a bureaucratic duel that has reached the state's second highest court.
Denied his permit, Vitilio asserted last month that his 15-acre Eagles Nest ranch is a zoo - and they aren't required to have such permits.
So the county countered with a bill, to be voted on Monday, to require all nonresearch organizations - including zoos - to obtain permits to have wild animals.
Accompanied by several of his birds and his lawyer, Vitilio held a news conference on the county court plaza yesterday to denounce the measure.
Vitilio says he understands the need to regulate wild animals. "We don't want the zoologically ignorant to have a [lynx] in his apartment," he said.
But, he says, Puddy doesn't pose a threat at Eagle's Nest. Vitilio even snuggles with the cat, he says.
Experts agree with the county's characterization of a lynx.
"A lynx is most definitely a dangerous wild animal," says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, adding that the wild cats are particularly risky near small children and pets.
The association has no qualms with the size of wildlife preserves or privately owned zoos such as Vitilio's. "The size has little to do with it," Feldman says. "It's quality of care and the commitment to science-based education."
Eagle's Nest is not among the more than 200 facilities accredited by the association, nor has it applied for accreditation, according to Feldman.
Vitilio has operated Eagle's Nest for 21 years. The more than 200 other species at the ranch are considered to be domestic animals or livestock and do not appear to run afoul of county regulations, officials say.
Certain animals, including bears and crocodiles, are banned from being pets under state law.
A wild animal, by definition in county law, is "any animal of a species that in the natural life of the species is wild, dangerous or ferocious; this includes an animal that has been domesticated by the owner but remains dangerous to the public."
The proposed change in law is aimed at Eagle's Nest, county officials acknowledge.
It is acceptable, Kobler, the county spokeswoman said, for legislation to be introduced that is designed to "resolve a pending situation."
The bill was introduced by Council President Kevin Kamenetz at the request of the county administration, which was sued by Vitilio in 2005, after county officials denied him a wild animal permit.
Vitilio appealed the county's denial of a permit at several court levels. In January, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the county's denial of permit, but, in an unpublished opinion, said that Vitilio should pursue the issue of whether Eagle's Nest is a zoo, according to his lawyer, Anne Benaroya.
Vitilio requested recognition as a zoo in February, but says he has not received a reply from the county.
"You can't change the rules in the middle of the game," says Benaroya, who filed a request yesterday with the county Animal Hearing Board for Eagle's Nest to be recognized as a zoo immediately, so that it wouldn't be affected by the not-yet-approved measure.
But Kamenetz says a permit is a reasonable requirement to have a wild cat.
"In my opinion, no one should be able to have a wild animal without first obtaining a permit from the county, whether you're a zoo or not," Kamenetz says. "To me that's all this is about."
"Apparently, he's had due process and no one agrees with him, including the Court of Special Appeals," Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat who works as An attorney, says of Vitilio.
Vitilio claims the county is abusing its authority and violating his civil rights.
Even more distressing, he says, is the thought of having to get rid of his beloved Puddy. "It would be like losing a family member," Vitilio says.