Marco Island petting zoo feud continues

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.

It’s like telling someone you don’t want to work with them anymore, yet they refuse to leave the office.

That’s in part how Marco Island attorney Craig Woodward described a petting zoo business venture gone wrong between his client, Refik Peksen, and Marco Island Police Officer Kevin Hennings.

Hennings seeks to reopen Gator Adventures, which has been closed due to the litigation he initiated in early March, and to stay on the property where the landowner, Peksen, no longer wants Hennings and no longer seeks to participate in the venture.

Collier Circuit Judge Lauren Brodie decided Wednesday not to grant the temporary injunction that Hennings sought. The court would not require Peksen to allow Hennings and all Hennings’ petting zoo property, which wife Molly Hennings, 25, said includes 22 alligators, three endangered gopher tortoises and several iguanas, among other animals, to stay on Peksen’s land.

Despite the judge’s decision, the feud isn’t over.

The joint venture between Peksen and Hennings was made verbally and relations between the two men and their corresponding staff began to sour sometime between February and March, they said.

A series of visits from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and Collier County Code Enforcement further prompted Peksen to terminate the venture and ask Hennings, along with his several tons of alligators, turtles, iguanas, staff and other property, to vacate Peksen’s land located southeast of Naples on San Marco Road and U.S. 41.

It’s property that consists of three adjoining lots that Peksen has owned for more than 25 years and includes a restaurant and gas station.

Hennings’ Gator Adventures was shut down when instead of vacating by March 11, as requested in a letter from Woodward, Hennings filed a lawsuit against Peksen on March 11. Hennings filed another lawsuit against Peksen, of Hammock Realty Corp, about 10 days later.

The suits are filed through Hennings’ Florida Wildlife Advisory Group, which is listed as a nonprofit with the Florida Division of Corporations, but does not show up on a list of 501 (C) 3 nonprofits on the IRS website nor on the GuideStar database of nonprofits.

The petting zoo was not of Hennings making, he told the court.

“It was a big dog and pony show initiated by Refik to make a profit,” Hennings said. Peksen and his staff said it was the other way around, with Hennings making the show.

Brodie suggested the parties work out their differences for the benefit of the animals as well to save everyone time and money. She also suggested filing a motion to consolidate the cases as the second lawsuit is yet to be heard with Collier Circuit Judge Frederick Hardt.

Per code enforcement, Peksen removed his farm animals — goats, chickens, mules, rabbits and others — while Hennings’ alligators, gopher tortoises and iguanas remain under Peksen’s care on the property despite his wish for Hennings to move them.

Brodie’s decision was in part based on whether allowing the operation of Gator Adventures was in the public’s best interest.

Woodward called Collier County zoning official Christopher Scott as a witness to testify that the animal exhibits were in violation of zoning.

According to testimony, code enforcement issued a notice of violation to Peksen, as property owner, for having the exhibits that were being run by Hennings. Animal exhibits can be permitted in Collier County, but were not permitted on this property.

Peksen said he thought Hennings acquired the proper permits for his alligators.

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