BARTOW — Safari Wild owners' claim that the controversial Green Swamp facility is a farm operation rather than a tourist attraction came under fire Friday from a procession of ranchers and an environmentalist.
But colleagues of one of the owners praised its design and educational potential.
Now it will be up to Administrative Law Judge David Maloney and Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet to decide whether the project continues.
Safari Wild was launched by Lex Salisbury, then the president of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, and Stephen Wehrmann, a St. Petersburg veterinarian.
The comments came during public testimony Friday following an administrative hearing.
Other than to indicate a decision is at least a month away, Maloney did not give a date for when he will issue a recommended order to the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Board.
The case was brought by the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which oversees protection of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern. The area was established in 1974 to protect water resources.
At issue is Polk County's decision last year to administratively approve development plans for the 258-acre Safari Wild animal park off Moore Road northeast of Lakeland in the Green Swamp.
The Department of Community Affairs contends Safari Wild is a commercial venture, and Polk's approval violated the county's own growth plan.
County officials contend they followed their rules.
Safari Wild representatives say their operation is an agritourism venture little different from surrounding cattle ranches or conservation lands.
Lois Murphy, a member of a longtime ranching family, disputed the status.
"Safari Wild is not agriculture,'' she said, citing e-mails from county tourism officials referring to plans to bring in travel writers and promote plans to bring tourists there to see exotic animals.
"This is no place for a zoo,'' said Marian Ryan, a Winter Haven environmentalist who was a member of the Green Swamp Land Authority overseeing the purchase of development rights on 45,000 acres in the area.
Gary Oswald, a veterinarian and colleague of Wehrmann's, said it's an impressive facility.
"It's more than a game ranch," he said. "It's much more natural than you'll ever see at a zoo.''
Safari Wild subpoenaed Daryl Emerson, an inspector for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which reviews permits for exotic animal facilities.
Emerson said Safari Wild exceeds state requirements for housing the animals, adding the operation is little different from similar ones he's seen in agricultural areas elsewhere in Florida.
Safari Wild has been controversial since its existence was disclosed by the escape of a troop of monkeys in 2008.