Monday, January 13, 2003

CHIMPANZEES ARE PROPS AT TROUBLED FLORIDA EVENT CENTER

Safari-themed retreat clashes with county, environmentalists
Exotic animal trainer Donovan Smith says he's an entrepreneur preserving farmland from development; critics accuse him of bending Collier County growth rules
By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, aszagier@naplesnews.com

Beneath a moonlit night, a sitar player sits cross-legged, nimbly plucking the stringed instrument as a pair of chimpanzees scamper nearby....

Donovan Smith and his wife, Tammy, have quietly cared for their herd of 40 exotic animals — from leopards and bobcats to panthers, lemurs, giraffes and an elephant — for more than a dozen years on a 35-acre wilderness preserve along Inez Road....

The name of the place is Ngala (En-ya-la), Swahili for "place of the lion." The title couldn't be more appropriate, with environmentalists roaring at Smith over alleged violations of the county's rural fringe growth plan. Opponents are also critical of what they call lax enforcement by Collier County officials, who are allowing Smith to stay in business even as he faces multiple building code and environmental violations....

For Smith, the bureaucratic haggling is a rude awakening to what he calls his "American dream." Married for 12 years to his high school sweetheart, the couple opened Ngala after their son, Cody, now 3, was born and they tired of taking their animals on the road.

Smith, a licensed animal handler by age 14, calls his events "living art environments with live animals." Customers can request Everglades motifs, or safari themes, and Close Up Creatures will deliver the appropriate critters, props and cuisine....