- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

ARTHUR, Ill. (AP) - A plan for a central Illinois zoo and wildlife park is garnering support from economic development advocates and criticism from local landowners and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1y9vd8u) reports James Aikman plans to turn 45 acres south of Arthur into a zoo where people could walk and drive around to see animals such as bison, deer, llamas and camels. He said larger predators would come a few years later.

Aikman, a 30-year-old banker in Arthur, projects 40,000 people would visit in the first year. He declined to say how much it would cost, but that it would be funded by loans and investors.

Critics of the plan say they’re concerned about safety, the welfare of the animals, and the impact on surrounding farmland and the environment. Carney Anne Nasser, legislative counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, cited the group’s “strenuous opposition” to the plan in a March letter to the Moultrie Country Board.

Nasser said there’s “no educational value in taking children” to such facilities with animals, and that petting zoos and roadside animal attractions “present serious public health concerns.”

Seventeen landowners in the immediate vicinity of the site are being represented by an Urbana attorney. Mike Sutherland, who initially contacted the attorney, would be surrounded by the wildlife park on three sides of his 5-acre property.

“Personally, I feel it is unethical to breed a wild animal for the sole purpose that it will remain in a cage all its life or behind a moat,” Sutherland said.

The Moultrie County Board is set to consider this week a change in the county zoning ordinance to add a special land use provision for a zoo and wildlife park. Aikman would still have to apply for a special-use permit.

County Board Chairman Dave McCabe said the wildlife park could bring in more tourists and bolster small businesses.

“I think, if it’s successful, it would be an economic enhancement to the county,” he said.

A bill in the Illinois Senate would restrict ownership of dangerous animals - including lions, tigers and bears - to certain organizations such as accredited zoological parks or animal refuges.

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Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com

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