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Wildlife center loses funding over legal dispute


A Roanoke-area wildlife center has spent more than $50,000 in legal fees in a seemingly never-ending dispute with its neighbors.
Kelli Knight, staff veterinarian, handling a red-tailed hawk, one of the many raptors SVWC rehabilitates every year. (Photo courtesy of Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center)

In a civil complaint, two sets of neighbors, including a current candidate for local office, accused the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke of using social media to defame them. The lawsuit, filed June 25, said the center posted false statements last summer that damaged their reputations.

The claim is the latest development in a battle over land use lawsuits that began last year. The center filed a request for a permit to add a raptor aviary to its property. The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors approved the request; but four neighbors with adjacent property raised concerns on road traffic and other zoning issues.

“It’s a pretty classic case of somebody trying to get their way by throwing their money around,” said Ed Clark, who has been the president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro since founding it in 1982.

The case was dismissed on Oct. 4 by a circuit judge, who found that the petitioners in the case “presented conclusory allegations regarding possible harm, but failed to articulate any tangible harm that would come out of the SVWC being located in close proximity to the Petitioners’ property,” according to court documents.

The ruling against the petitioners could be challenged further by being appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia or asking the circuit court to review its ruling. However, Clark doesn’t anticipate this case will go that far.

“My feeling and opinion is that the plaintiffs thought they could bully their way through this. What they found instead was that the center has a huge amount of public support and determination, especially by the founders,” Clark said.

Both sides are asking the court to award them compensatory and punitive damages as well as coverage of their legal fees.

The legal battle has taken a financial toll on the wildlife center, which runs on a budget of approximately $160,000 per year, reported The Roanoke Times. Sabrina Garvin, the executive director and co-founder of SVWC, said the ongoing litigation is depleting resources the center needs to “house, medicate and feed wildlife.”

“As a result, we have become increasingly more dependent on fundraising from our supporters for the many tens of thousands of dollars needed to cover mounting legal fees incurred defending these lawsuits and to enable the center to say open and protect our wildlife patients,” Garvin said in an email.

Federally and state licensed, SVWC was founded in 2000 by Garvin and her husband, Lucky, a retired physician. In 2014, the non-profit moved to its current location in southwest Roanoke County and cares for more than 2,000 animals every year, according to the website.

Birds make up the majority of the center’s patients, including owls, hawks and eagles. And though the center is equipped to treat raptors’ injuries, it currently doesn’t have a cage big enough for the birds to relearn to fly. As a result, many of its raptors are sent to Clark’s center in Waynesboro.

But after 19 years, SVWC “only recently has obtained enough public funding to cover its operating costs,” Garvin said.

“It is challenging, to say the least, and we appreciate any and all support that we receive,” Garvin said.

Similarly to how the wildlife center in Waynesboro is funded, nearly all of the SVWC’s funding comes from private donors and foundations. The center also depends on its annual Night Owl on the Town fundraising gala, which will be held at the Shenandoah Club in Roanoke on March 21 next year.

“They’re not funded by the state, they’re not funded by the city. Their money comes from individuals who care about wildlife and support their work,” Clark said. “[Donors] don’t give us donations so that we can pay law firms to defend us from our neighbor’s assertions.”

Following the lawsuits, the community joined together to help keep the wildlife center on its feet. Multiple fundraiser events have been held in Roanoke. Currently, a GoFundMe page has raised more than $10,000 for the center.

“I believe in what you do for the wildlife in our area and cannot let bullies win,” GoFundMe donor Renee Thornhill wrote.

Blacksburg attorney James Creekmore, who represents SVWC in the lawsuit, declined comment.

The building of the raptor aviary was challenged in 2018 by Stan and Jane Seymour, as well as Adrian Maver and spouse Blaine Creasy, who all own property near the center. Earlier this year, Stan Seymour, an independent, entered in a three-way race for the Cave Spring District seat on the county board. The other contenders are retired county attorney Paul Mahoney, a Republican, and business owner Brian Powell, a Democrat.

The election is in November. Stan Seymour did not respond to requests for comment.

For more information on the lawsuits, visit the SVWC website.