Partnership dispute closes Collier petting zoo, hearing set Tuesday on its future

David Albers/Staff
- Hennings' Gator Adventures petting zoo sits closed on Saturday, March 30, 2013, near the intersection of U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road, about 15 miles southeast of Naples in Collier County.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - Hennings' Gator Adventures petting zoo sits closed on Saturday, March 30, 2013, near the intersection of U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road, about 15 miles southeast of Naples in Collier County.

David Albers/Staff
- A juvenile American alligator sits in a cage in Hennings' Gator Adventures as the petting zoo sits closed on Saturday, March 30, 2013, near the intersection of U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road, about 15 miles southeast of Naples in Collier County.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - A juvenile American alligator sits in a cage in Hennings' Gator Adventures as the petting zoo sits closed on Saturday, March 30, 2013, near the intersection of U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road, about 15 miles southeast of Naples in Collier County.

— Marco Island Police Officer Kevin Hennings wrestled alligators at his petting zoo east of Naples until a recent wrangle with his landlord shut down Hennings’ Gator Adventures.

Hennings, 39, operated the Gator Adventures petting zoo on U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road, about 15 miles southeast of Naples, as part of his nonprofit Florida Wildlife Advisory Group.

Until recently, the petting zoo, which included gators, lizards, bunnies, birds, goats and other animals, was open to the public to stop by or call anytime, according to the Gator Adventures website, alligatorfun.com.

Then, as of Thursday, a post to the home page stated Gator Adventures is “closed until further notice due to litigation” and gates on the property were locked.

That litigation includes two lawsuits filed in March by Hennings, through Florida Wildlife Advisory Group, and his attorney Robert Bates, of Marco Island and Westwood, N.J., against the owner of the land and partner in the venture, Refik Peksen of Hammock Realty.

A hearing on one of the lawsuits is scheduled for Tuesday in Collier circuit court.

Hennings and Peksen each owned and cared for different animals on the site, according to the lawsuits. Hennings’ animals are reptiles, including alligators exceeding 700 pounds, as well as turtles and iguanas.

Peksen’s animals include mules, goats, sheep, peacocks, ducks, rabbits, parrots and canaries, among others.

Hennings’ animals are reptiles, including alligators exceeding 700 pounds, as well as turtles and iguanas.

Peksen’s animals include mules, goats, sheep, peacocks, ducks, rabbits, parrots and canaries, among others.

The alligator wrestling and animals owned and cared for by Hennings are separate from the other animals in the petting zoo, Hennings said.

“We work with the schools. It’s a nonprofit. It’s not open to the public. It’s something we do for kids seeking a science-based degree,” Hennings said. “It’s not a tourist thing for us, but he (Peksen) had tried to spin off what we had to make it that.

“The mission is completely different. What we do is for kids, it’s an educational thing. He tried to use ours as an attraction for him,” Hennings said.

The lawsuits came about after Peksen sought to terminate the joint venture with Hennings and remove Hennings from the property, those involved in the court cases said.

Peksen’s attorney, Craig Woodward of Marco Island, wrote a March 7 letter to Hennings notifying him of the termination of the joint venture and notifying Hennings that he, along with all employees, animals and belongings of Florida Wildlife Advisory Group, were to vacate the property by March 11.

Instead, on March 11, Hennings, through Florida Wildlife Advisory Group, filed the first of two lawsuits against Peksen and Hammock Realty, contending damages of more than $15,000 were incurred by the wildlife group with the installation of pools, filtration systems, fencing and walking areas made by the nonprofit. Another lawsuit was filed March 20.

Hennings wanted to have a judge order that Gator Adventures remain on the property, citing a five-year lease with Peksen that began in April 2012.

Collier Circuit Judge Lauren Brodie denied the motion seeking a temporary injunction on March 26.

Tuesday, it will be up to the judge to decide whether Refik has the right to remove Hennings from the property without paying damages, Woodward said.

The courts

The courts

The lease agreement, which is a letter signed only by Peksen, states that “Mr. Hennings has permission to lease the land,” which includes three adjoined properties totaling about 5 acres, at 19800 U.S. 41 East as well as 20018 and 20020 U.S. 41 East.

The lease was good for five years “while participating in a joint venture with Hammock Realty Corp. as it relates to research, education and conservancy of Florida wildlife,” Peksen wrote.

According to the lawsuits, Florida Wildlife Advisory Group is a not-for-profit “organized to introduce high school students and the public to the beauties and study of animal wildlife.”

The rift between the two partners has to do, at least in part, with money left in donation boxes at the petting zoo.

Woodward’s termination letter to Hennings stated the money wasn’t being properly distributed.

“The funds collected, both in the donation boxes and as admission fees, were to be deposited into a joint account at Fifth Third Bank,” Woodward wrote.

However, not all money collected has been accounted for or deposited, he said in the letter.

Hennings had a different version of what happened to the money, contending money for the nonprofit didn’t end up there.

Hennings then referred the Daily News to his attorney, Bates, for any other clarification on the venture and lawsuit. Bates declined to comment.

Refik similarly had little to say other than sharing that the petting zoo isn’t open to the public as of now.

“It’s become a really complicated situation. Attorneys are working on it. We’re right in the middle of something right now,” Refik said.

The gators, goats and other creatures aren’t suffering in the meantime, though.

“The animals are fine,” Woodward said. “Nobody has it out for the animals in this.”

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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