Government

Emotions stir over Cedar Rapids crackdown on neighborhood wildlife rehab

City says it cannot allow wild animals to be kept in a residential area

Amber Oldfield moves a young raccoon back into its enclosure July 22 and prepares to feed it at her northeast Cedar Rapids home. Oldfield has lived in this home for 10 years and is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The three raccoons Oldfield currently is rehabilitating live together to increase the chance of a successful release. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Amber Oldfield moves a young raccoon back into its enclosure July 22 and prepares to feed it at her northeast Cedar Rapids home. Oldfield has lived in this home for 10 years and is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The three raccoons Oldfield currently is rehabilitating live together to increase the chance of a successful release. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — City officials are defending a crack down on a local wildlife rehabilitator — whose home practice in a residential neighborhood violates the zoning code — saying an exception for her could set a precedent for things most residents would not appreciate in their own neighborhoods — like tall garages, dog kennels and noise.

As is, wildlife rehabilitation in Cedar Rapids is prohibited in residential zones but allowed in light and general industrial zones and suburban mixed-use regional centers. It also could be eligible for a conditional use permit in several other zoning classifications.

During the city’s recent zoning code update, bee keeping was added to the list of what is allowed in residential neighborhoods, with certain restrictions. But officials kept animal shelters — which is how a wildlife rescue is viewed — more limited as before.

“There’s always theoretically a way, I guess, to get to something but it would be a pretty big departure from how we would handle any other animal-related occupation, if we were to allow wild animals in the open ... in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Seth Gunnerson, a city planner involved in the zoning code update. “The big thing is whatever our regulation is, we want it to be fair for everyone in a similar situation.”

The case of Amber Oldfield, 39, a state licensed wildlife rehabilitator who nurses sick, injured and abandoned foxes, ducks, raccoons, beavers and other wild animals back to health in cages outside her modest home in northeast Cedar Rapids, underscores the challenges of applying a city code fairly and evenly to tens of thousands of people while accounting for unique — and at times emotional — situations that emerge.

Elected officials and city staff have faced public criticism after ordering Oldfield to move or get rid of the animals, despite having not received a complaint about her in her 16 years of operating in Cedar Rapids.

“She’s a rare breed with a truly kind and caring heart taking care of creatures that would very well perish and die a slow and painful death without her help,” said Julie Hamilton, 62, who spoke Tuesday at a City Council meeting in support of Oldfield. “How is it different than animals kept in filthy conditions? Her site is immaculately clean. She cares for the animals. Many take children to see the animals on a daily basis. ... Forcing her to move or to get rid of the animals that need her the most seems truly cruel to me.”

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Oldfield is one of only two wildlife rescuers in Cedar Rapids, according to the city. Oldfield takes on about 300 animals per year, paying costs for food and other needs out of pocket, she said.

Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler said in response to the question of why not grant an exception: “I would say it’s certainly safety, but also the quiet enjoyment of your property.”

“We can’t separate her case and what she is doing from others (such as) keeping dogs in your backyard for other people, which is what she’s doing — keeping wild animals in her backyard for other people. Are we interested in opening that up?” Fowler asked.

Allowing Oldfield to continue as is would require a change to the code, she said.

Fowler said the city has provided locations where Oldfield is allowed to practice. No deadline has been set and officials have said they want to give her time to comply.

By comparison, Des Moines doesn’t specify wildlife rehab in its zoning code and would treat it akin to an animal hospital or veterinary clinic. Those are prohibited in residential districts there, too, and also would be allowed in certain commercial and industrial districts with some restrictions, according to Des Moines Assistant City Attorney Glenna Frank.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart supports the city’s enforcement, although wants Oldfield to have ample time to get her affairs in order.

“Our job is to keep people safe and to enforce the rules evenly,” Hart said. “The work she is doing is great, and she seems like a nice person. Hopefully the community will step up to help her.”

Ashley Vanorny is the only one of nine City Council members who publicly expressed support for Oldfield’s case.

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“I am compassionate to your cause and will help to champion the work you do while welcoming the help of any council members,” Vanorny said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I have great respect for the work that you do and will help to find a way forward with a resolution. Thanks for looking after these animals.”

The weight of the city bearing down is heavy and compliance is a struggle, said Oldfield, a single mother who made her case before the council Tuesday for a second time.

“I can’t afford much more than my monthly bills and the food for the animals,” Oldfield said. “It is too much for one person to do. If truly the wish is for the city to remove me and the services I provide for the city, than I ask please help me.”

Oldfield’s previous requests for help from the city have only made her situation worse.

The code enforcement began after she called police because neighborhood kids were repeatedly trespassing, which alerted the city to her wildlife rescue.

Now she is dealing with the outcome of a rental housing inspection after the city realized she does not hold the deed to her home and is considered a renter.

This came after Oldfield appeared before City Council for the first time in July. The city inspected the home and said it needs to be painted and her child’s window raised 2 inches, Oldfield said.

City staff say rental housing enforcement targets the deed holder and not the renter, but Oldfield said she pays the mortgage and bills and the checklist of needed fixes has fallen to her. She has begun painting.

At least one person who spoke Tuesday to the City Council questioned if the rental housing enforcement was a form of retaliation.

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“It makes me wonder if her citations ended up coming her way after all of this,” speaker Craig Rathje said. “Because if it did uniquely, I think the case is they want her to get these things done. You can clearly see she is pretty stressed now the way it is. ... I ask the city of Cedar Rapids to do what they need to do and step up and help with the situation.”

City staff said enforcement is typically triggered by a complaint or when they become aware of situations, which is what happen in the two enforcement processes against Oldfield.

Pat Meier, 71, urged city leaders to “think outside the box.”

“There are always dangers and issues with everything, whether we are putting a rail yard in neighborhood with children,” Meier said — a nod to the city’s recommendation to allow a $6.5 million Cargill rail yard in the Rompot neighborhood — “or we have a wildlife habitat. Or we allow people to keep dogs that they don’t keep carefully fenced in and risk attacking other people.

“And yet we allow some of those things because we have to. We have to balance them ... It’s not Amber, not just the animals. It’s people who care about animals. It’s our community and it’s everyone of you on the council who losses if we can’t think outside the box.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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