Request for animal permit brought to city council

A Rock Rapids resident has requested an animal permit in order to begin working with animals she feels would be ideal for a mini zoo, an attraction she says many people want to see back in the community.

Michelle Sprock said she first approached city leaders about the mini zoo after flooding in June 2014 wiped the attraction from Island Park. At that time, the hazard mitigation buyout program and other flood recovery efforts were a priority and the topic of rebuilding a mini zoo was tabled. As city officials moved forward and completed a park vision plan, they realized building a structure similar to what previously housed the mini zoo would not be a suitable fixture in Island Park. “Our park visioning process identified the No. 1 goal of Island Park was to make it as resilient as possible and not put structures into the flood plain,” explained city administrator Jordan Kordahl.

As flood recovery efforts have moved forward, the topic has again come up but city officials have deemed the mini zoo a low priority until a suitable location can be found outside of the flood plain and which doesn’t disrupt any of the city’s other parks or neighborhoods. The city is also not in a position to entertain dedicating funds toward the project without a clear picture of location and management structure, according to Kordahl.

During a recent city council meeting, Sprock presented a proposal and a request for an animal permit in hopes to begin what she says is just a platform to start. “Years from now I hope to build a facility in a more appropriate setting to make something similar to what people in the community say they miss having in town since the loss of the mini zoo.”

Sprock requested an animal permit that would allow her to have certain animals that are prohibited by city ordinances on her residential property within the city limits in order for her to begin training the animals and begin offering animal encounters and programs, including programs in the park. “I’m giving you the option to have someone who’s skilled and qualified to do this and do it right without it being anything that is going to distract from the other city work going on and in a way that is not a financial burden on the city,” Sprock explained. “It seems the idea is not a high priority, but it’s been three years.”

Along with her educational and professional credentials as an animal biologist, Sprock presented a drawing of a temporary structure that could be set up in the park. “This would allow for visitors to the park to come and experience animals in a way they use to but also in an interactive way,” she explained. She shared a similar vision for animal encounters on her property. “Ultimately with my training the encounter would involve animals on appropriate leashes so the animals are still restrained but there wouldn’t always be a fence between kids andanimal,” Sprock explained. ‘That’s why it takes time training and socialization with these animals to make it where I feel comfortable letting your kid walk up to the animal without it or them (kids) getting hurt.”

City council members expressed several challenges and questions regarding both a mini zoo and animal encounters. “I think there are a lot of people that would like to have the mini zoo come back, but I think one of the big challenges is to find a location,” said councilman Scott Schneidermann. Sprock indicated she is willing to help to work to find that location but in the meantime reiterated her idea for “an alternative and a platform.”

Schneidermann also raised questions about it being in a neighborhood. “Technically I don’t have any neighbors on my block,” explained Sprock. “I have three people that live in proximity to me but the rest is a hayfield, a motorcycle shop and green spaces. Two of the three people that live near me voiced support for this project.”

But Schneidermann also pointed out the complaints received by the city last year from Sprock’s neighbors regarding animal ordinance violations after it was alleged that goats owned by Sprock were out of the fenced-in area and crossed the street. The goats are not currently allowed under the city’s animal ordinances. Sprock and her husband were eventually found to be in violation and were forced to remove the goats and other animals from their property.

Council members asked Kordahl what the process would be for Sprock’s request to be considered. He explained the proposal that includes her property would need to start with a request for a change in the zoning ordinance. “That would go to the planning and zoning commission,” said Kordahl. Sprock clarified her request. “I’m requesting a permit which is making an exception to the rule for a specific purpose with certain circumstances being considered,” she explained. “The permit would be written in such a way that exempts me from certain ordinances for the purpose of this goal, not just for me to have animals that are against city ordinances in town.”

That would be handled slightly differently, according to Kordahl. “If you’re talking about an exception to a zoning ordinance, I believe that needs to go to the board of adjustment,” he said.

As for the animals Sprock would like to use in the animal encounters, programs and ultimately the mini zoo, she says they are animals most people would expect in a mini zoo situation and animals she’s already spent time training, including goats, a tame chicken, a giant hare, a tortoise and others. Council members Tami Murray and Ed Reck asked Sprock if the proposal was about pursuing the mini zoo or about getting her goats back. “If we allowed everything but goats, would you still pursue it?” Reck asked. “There are many other animals that are not agricultural. If you want to get the mini zoo started, why don’t you start with those animals?” Murray asked. “Yes. For me, this is about the mini zoo,” said Sprock. “I feel like because of the one situation we had last year with the goats we had for four years, it’s preventing me from having a chance of doing something you know the community wants and you’re penalizing me because of that situation.”

According to Sprock, the goats have been in her plan for a mini zoo from the start. “Obviously they’re more than likely going to be the animals that come back for the mini zoo because I’ve worked with them for almost four years,” she said. “They already have the training so I can start right away with them.”

For now, the city is not authorized to issue a permit for any activity that violates the zoning ordinance. “The option remains of applying to planning and zoning commission for an amendment to the ordinance,” explained Kordahl. “That process would involved public notifications and public hearings. After planning and zoning makes its recommendation, city council may either approve, deny or send it back to planning and zoning,” he said.

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