Originally created 02/08/98

Town ready for possible gorilla war



MORGANTON, Ga. -- Scrunched in a corner booth of the Village Restaurant, Buddy Folsom interrupted his whispered conversation with a half dozen people for a quick security check.

"Hey, what do you think about those gorillas?" Mr. Folsom asked a man at the next table. "You know, those gorillas that couple wants to bring in here?"

Fork in the air, the man replied: "Don't want 'em."

Mr. Folsom relaxed a little and turned his attention back to the discussion at hand -- how to stop a couple of animal lovers who want to build Gorilla Haven, a sanctuary for about a half-dozen unwanted, aging primates.

On the other side of this north Georgia mountain hamlet, Steuart and Jane Dewar sat in the living room of their log cabin, surrounded by pictures, prints and carvings of gorillas, and laid out their plans to build Gorilla Haven.

"It'll be completely safe. The only way somebody is going to get hurt is if they break in ...," Mr. Dewar said. "No zoo is going to send their gorillas here unless Gorilla Haven meets the highest standards possible. Do you know how much gorillas cost?"

Fannin County, population 28,000, was built around Tennessee Copper mines at the turn of the century.

Today, its economic mainstays are tourism, real estate and the dwindling jobs at the mines.

"There hasn't been anything to unite and divide the area like this since the strike at the mine," said Holly Kaylor, a member of Mr. Folsom's Concerned Citizens Against Gorilla Haven. "When the strike happened, everybody chose up sides. It's just like this."

As far back as Mrs. Dewar can remember -- as a child with a stuffed gorilla toy -- she has had a passion for the primates. Their questioning eyes, inquisitive nature and compassion filled her thoughts.

Last year, the Dewars sold their multi-million dollar computer software company in Chicago and moved to north Georgia to build their dream -- a refuge for the primates who cannot be displayed in zoos because of old age, inbreeding or behavior problems, such as throwing feces.

These problem gorillas can't be killed or exported because of federal law. So they are warehoused in cramped enclosures at zoos and wildlife preserves.

Gorilla Haven would allow the animals to roam over several acres of the Dewars' land, which would be surrounded by high-security walls, glass observation windows, electrified fences and guards. A team of researchers would also be on hand 24 hours a day to monitor them, Mr. Dewar said.

The Dewars bought a side of a mountain -- 275 acres of a tree-lined ridge and valley -- for their sanctuary and have received international support from gorilla experts and zoos.

But when the couple announced their plans, their neighbor -- Mr. Folsom -- led the charge against it.

"We're not going to ask gorilla experts anything. They would love to have a place to send their reject gorillas," said John Tucker, the attorney for Mr. Folsom's group. The opponents contend the gorillas will spread disease, hurt property values and pollute streams.

Mr. Tucker drafted a one-page ordinance that, if approved by the county commission, would ban exotic animals. But when he submitted it to the county's attorney, it was expanded to 11 pages, and public hearings were scheduled.

Mr. Folsom and Mr. Tucker contend the changes would allow the gorillas into the county and accused the three-person commission of conspiring with the Dewars. A vote on the ordinance is scheduled before Feb. 15.

"They may get this passed. But it won't stay. We'll elect somebody else on to the board and overturn it," Mr. Folsom said, waving a copy of the proposed ordinance. "We'll keep fighting. This will never be over."

The fight also has been waged in the county's weekly newspaper and in radio and television advertisements.

Opponents compile petitions and pass out photocopies from Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, a book loosely based on attempts to find and eradicate a deadly virus that was transmitted from a primate to a human in Central Africa and discovered in Washington.

"It's a small group that's very vocal," Mrs. Dewar said of the opposition. "There are people here who support us."

But Mr. Folsom pointed to the more than 2,100 signatures on his petitions.

"You ask just about anybody in Fannin County, and they are going to tell you the same thing -- they don't want gorillas -- excepting maybe the Dewars and their friends," he said.

But some support for the Dewars surfaced after a sign opposing Gorilla Haven was placed directly across from the entrance to the Dewars' property.

"It all boils down to this: What right does the (concerned citizens group) have to tell the Dewars how to spend their money and use their land? None. Next they'll be telling all of us how to use our time, money and land, and then we will have a dictatorship," Sammy Broyles, a Fannin County businessman, wrote in the local newspaper.

The Dewars say they have been threatened by anonymous callers who threaten to poach the gorillas or torch their homes.

"We can't take responsibility for what some caller says," Mr. Folsom said. "But you know, there are going to be some people who think that. Poaching is the biggest crime going in this county."

Back at the restaurant, Mr. Folsom and Mrs. Kaylor encouraged the man when he finished eating to sign a petition posted at a general store.

"You know, that's what we do all day. We see somebody and asked if they've signed the petition," Mrs. Kaylor said.