A well-known wildlife education and research center near Forest Lake that has introduced thousands of children to bears, wolves, cougars and other animals is facing eviction by the state.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sent a notice Monday to the executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, which has been based at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Anoka County since 1991.
"Obviously, we are going to contest it," said Peggy Callahan, the center's founder and executive director. She said the DNR's accusations — which include health and safety concerns, building alterations and an unauthorized dog shelter on the property — are not true.
"It feels hostile and very personal," she said of the DNR's action.
DNR officials said that if Callahan resolves the problems, she can stay through the end of her lease in 2017, but the eviction notice was issued because so far, she has been unwilling to do so.
She said that the DNR insists that she and her four employees vacate an office building and move to the education building on the site, which is impossible because it has no extra space. The DNR, she said, has declined to provide a trailer or offices in their buildings next door.
"It's a big sticking point," she said.
The dispute is an unusual rift in a long-standing relationship between the DNR and Callahan. She's worked at the facility since 1985, when it was a state-owned wolf research center funded by federal grants. When that program ended, she took it over and gradually converted it into a nonprofit that included educational programs for the public and schools. Today, it houses 40 wolves, cougars, fox, bears, lynx, birds of prey and one porcupine.
A respected wildlife and wolf expert, Callahan has participated in research projects related to restoring the endangered Mexican wolf to its place in the southwest and developing nonlethal controls to protect livestock from predators.
For years, she and the DNR had a working partnership. Sometimes she's helped the agency out with wildlife projects, she said.
DNR officials said the agency has always supported her mission and has no concerns about the welfare of the animals in her charge. "We think they do a lot of good work," said Paul Telander, the DNR's wildlife section manager.
In October, the DNR inspected a storage and office building it owns at the site after receiving a complaint from a citizen and found numerous violations, Telander said. Someone was living there, which is not permitted, he said; the heating system was inadequate and electrical cords were scattered all over the place.
And part of the building had been used as a kennel for dogs, and at times there have been dozens of dogs on the premises, Telander said.
Callahan said that the center has always had a staff person that stays overnight for security, and the DNR has never raised it as an issue before. Vandals have released animals in the night, and someone must be on site if animals escape or have problems, she said.
And while she does own a dog shelter, also a nonprofit, she runs it from her home, not the Wildlife Center. At times she brings dogs to the center, but never any that are aggressive, she said.
"We've been doing this forever," she said. "We pick up stray dogs all the time."
The DNR also said that she has not paid her rent on time — about $700 every three months. Callahan said that's true, but that she has often paid what she owes in larger lump sums when she has the money.
Telander said that if she resolves the problems, she can stay through the end of its current lease, March 2017, which is when she was planning on moving to another location. Callahan said she has 152 acres farther north in Anoka County that is the center's future home. But moving the animals now, even if it were possible in winter, would cost nearly $500,000.
"It's not that I want to stay" at Carlos Avery, she said. "I just don't think six months is fair."