ELBERT COUNTY, Colo. -- The Elbert County community is mourning the deaths of 11 exotic animals at a wildlife sanctuary last week.
Those animal deaths came at the hands of their own owners.
The operators of Lion’s Gate Sanctuary euthanized five bears, three lions lions and three tigers after county commissioners denied their request to relocate the animals to another 43-acre property in the county.
Now, the animal pens at 22111 Elbert County Road 150 near Agate sit empty.
"I loved seeing them as we would come and go. I loved hearing them in the morning with my coffee. It was wonderful," neighbor Liz Smith said.
She loved the magnificent creatures, and is saddened by their sudden and unexpected deaths.
"I don't understand killing 11 animals. There had to have been another solution than that. That seems so barbaric and cold," she said.
The owners of the exotic animals wanted to relocate them because of safety problems created by multiple flooding events in 2015 and 2016.
But when county commissioners turned down the plan at a five-hour hearing April 12, sanctuary owner Joan Laub and partner Peter Winney resorted to killing the animals eight days later.
"The decision to deny our application was made on unsubstantiated lies and unfounded fears," Laub said in a statement. "The commissioners made a decision based upon emotion and not the law.
"The 'not in my backyard' crowd controlled the meeting and the outcome. As a result, 11 innocent animals paid the price."
Commissioner Danny Wilcox said they made a "heavily researched decision based on safety" that the "new location had way more residents," and the sanctuary's safety and "emergency operations plan was rudimentary."
Commissioners also felt the owners hadn't done enough to try to mitigate the flooding on their property.
The commissioners also released a statement Wednesday night.
"The decision by the operators of Lion’s Gate to euthanize all their animals comes as a total surprise to the County for two reasons. Only two weeks earlier, the operators of the facility assured the County in a public forum that if the application was denied, they would continue to operate at their current location as they had for the previous 10 years. Additionally, the Keenesburg Wildlife Sanctuary publicly offered to care for the animals at their facility if Lion’s Gate was unable to do so. Given these facts, the news that Lion’s Gate euthanized all 11 animals at the same time and so shortly after the decision to deny the move comes as a shock."
“The most important consideration in this land use issue was ensuring the safety of the many citizens residing in the vicinity of the proposed relocation site," commissioner Chris Richardson said.
"We would have loved to have seen these animals be allowed to live out their lives at the Elbert County location that had been their home for more than a decade."
Neighbors felt the shock as well.
"It is so, so sad. But if there was another option and this was done out of frustration or spite ... if they didn't make every possible effort to save the animals, then they should be held accountable for their actions," Smith said.