TUCSON (CN) - The owner of a wildlife rehabilitation facility claims that Arizona Game and Fish officials suspended her license illegally and are trying to shut her down after nearly 20 years of saving injured animals.
Darlene Braastad has operated the nonprofit Forever Wild in Tucson since 1996, taking in about 2,500 injured or sick mammals and birds every year for emergency care and eventual release into wild.
Braastad, like the other 24 private wildlife rehabilitators in Arizona, operates under a special license from the state Game and Fish Department. The agency last renewed her license in February 2014 through December 2016.
But on Jan. 20, defendant Regional Supervisor Raul Vega suspended Braastad's license, and after denying her appeal the next day, ordered Braastad to hand over all of the animals on her property to Game and Fish by the end of the month.
Late last week Braastad sued Vega and the Game and Fish Department, seeking an injunction against the order and claiming that the "summary deprivation occurred without a meaningful opportunity for a hearing and thus defendants denied plaintiff adequate procedural protections.
The state shot back Tuesday with a motion to dismiss , claiming that threats to the health and safety of the animals in Braastad's care justified the emergency action "to prevent plaintiff from taking in even more injured wildlife and potentially subjecting that wildlife to the structurally dilapidated and unhealthful conditions at her facility."
The agency suspended Braastad's license after "multiple repeat violations were documented in a December 2014 inspection" of the Forever Wild facility, Arizona Game and Fish Spokesman Mark Hart said in an interview.
"We rely on wildlife rehabilitators who have licenses, but we retain that responsibility for the wildlife, and in this case we believe her failure to meet the minimum care-in-captivity standards poses an immediate threat the wildlife there," Hart said.
Hart said that state investigators had found two Harris hawks, a red-tailed hawk, an American kestrel and a bobcat being held in substandard conditions. He said that Braastad did not allow a "full inspection" of her facility, which is a condition of her license.
"The department, as the trustee of all of Arizona's wildlife, took these actions to protect the health, safety and welfare of the wildlife in Braastad's custody," the Game and Fish Department said in a statement Tuesday. "During an administrative inspection in December 2014, department staff noted numerous hazardous conditions and wildlife requiring veterinary treatment."
Braastad's attorney, Carl Sammartino, said that Game and Fish has been taking a harder line with Forever Wild since 2010.
"Since then they have been pursuing Darlene for what I would call not minor infractions, but infractions that don't seem to exist if you examine the actual Arizona administrative code, which has a section that governs captivity standards and enclosures for these animals," Sammartino told Courthouse News.
"The enclosure standards in Arizona seem to indicate that enclosures need to maintain the safety of the animal and be in the animal's best interest - very general standards."
Sammartino said that the guidelines for wildlife rehabilitators in the state code differ somewhat from the more specific standards suggested by industry guidelines.
"Rehabilitation is always a tailored process for individual animals," he said.
Sammartino said that Game and Fish inspected Braastad's facility after she applied unsuccessfully for a "holding license" to keep a hawk and a kestrel that she felt could not be rehabilitated and released back to the wild.
After denying the holding license in October 2014, Game and Fish officials moved to "restrict" Braastad's rehabilitation license, Sammartino said. When Sammartino said that such restrictions could be imposed only during a license-renewal period, officials "backtracked" and inspected her facility in December for nearly four hours, and shortly thereafter suspended Forever Wild's long-held license.
"I feel like Game and Fish is trying to shut her down," Sammartino said. "I don't know the reason why."
Sammartino said that Forever Wild has about 20 wild animals in its possession.
Oral argument was scheduled for today, Wednesday, in Tucson Federal Court.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.