ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – An Ontario family that had three lions and six monkeys euthanized is blaming a city council decision that denied their request for an exotic pet sanctuary. The critters lived in a privately-owned exotic animal refuge in Thorold, Ont. Ultimately, no accredited zoo could take the animals, given the refuge's unaccredited status. Chris Morabito, whose wife Sharon Morabito owns 20-acre property in Thorold, said it was intended to be an education and rehabilitation refuge for sick, old or abandoned animals. Sharon Morabito currently faces charges under the Ontario Planning Act, for operating an animal sanctuary contrary to the municipal zoning bylaw. "We couldn't find anyone to take the animals, as these animals have problems," Chris said. "The City of Thorold has made it clear they don't want us.” Frank Fabiano, chief administrative officer for Thorold, said the city was just following municipal zoning laws. Thorold mayor-elect Ted Luciani, who voted against the Morabitos' application, agreed. "When we voted against it, it was based on the fact of the zoning bylaw being breached,” he said. “I feel council made the right decision at that time." Meanwhile, Chris said the family is now drained of all resources: "We've gone through the courts about four times now. We're bankrupt." In July 2007, Thorold council rejected an initial application by the The Exotic Animal Rescue Society (TEARS) to turn the wooded property into a public sanctuary for the animals. Many of the unwanted animals come from homes and farms in Ontario's Niagara region, and were kept as pets. That sanctuary would have been a separate entity from TEARS, a charitable organization involved in other projects aimed at supporting unwanted exotic animals, run by Melissa Morabito, Chris and Sharon's daughter. The initial application for a sanctuary was filed in 2005, and Chris said the city's first reaction was positive. Staff reports from the city and Niagara Region had advised against giving the plans the green light, as the area is prime agricultural land, and a woodlot on the property is an environmental conservation area. At the time of the rejection, several councillors were also concerned the Morabitos didn't comply with orders to stop work on the property after it was discovered they had removed trees and built animal pens without proper permits. Morabito said the family has received conflicting opinions and orders from the city's planning department. In October 2009, Niagara police conducted a raid that discovered marijuana growing at the property. Officers also found lions, a three-legged jaguar, parrots and monkeys on the site that were kept in separate cages and enclosures. The Lincoln County Humane Society found the animals in good condition and animal protection officers didn't lay charges, as there was no bylaw banning the exotic animals on rural land. At the time, a number of people were charged in the raid. Chris and his brother Lawrence Morabito were among them and face charges of possession and production of drugs. Chris maintains his family is innocent of the charges, which are still before the court. Following the bust, former Thorold councillor Jim Handley led a drive to update the city's options, including a possible ban on exotic animals being kept in Thorold. However, no such bylaw has been passed. The couple currently live on the property in a trailer, but plan to sell it and move. In the meantime, they have a couple of primates left on site they think they can find a home for. The Morabitos say their ultimate objective is to gain support for what TEARS does so an approved animal sanctuary can be opened elsewhere in the area. "All we wanted to do was find a place where these unwanted animals could live," Morabito said. "We want to stop future euthanization of these exotics."
*The Toronto Sun