Julie Plott says she moved to Davidson County specifically because she found a suitable, secluded location to breed and research endangered and threatened animal species.
When she located a house for sale on 61/2 wooded acres off Swicegood Road in Tyro last year, she thought it was just right for her.
She says the first thing she did was talk to the county manager and planner to be sure what she planned would not violate any county regulations.
"I meant to be private and that's what I intend to be," she explained.
But it didn't take long after Plott built an enclosure for Sasha, a 450-pound lioness she has owned since the feline was a cub, to attract more attention than she wanted.
When Sasha roars, she scares the neighbors.
"I'm sympathetic to their concerns," Plott said. "It's not every day that a lion moves into town."
Plott installed an 8-foot wooden perimeter fence to keep out prying eyes and mischievous trespassers, like the television news crews that showed up without her permission.
Shielded from view is a 2,000-square-foot fenced area where Sasha lives with a 45-pound Welsh Corgi mixed-breed dog named Mo.
The two animals have been together for six years, Plott said, as an ongoing experiment in interspecies bonding.
"I operate a business as well as a nonprofit organization," she explained. "My animals are not kept as pets, but rather they are used in breeding programs or in behavioral research studies."
Plott studied zoology at North Carolina State University and received her bachelor of science in recreation management from Appalachian State University.
Her concentration was in outdoor experiential education.
She is a member of the Feline Conservation Federation, the Simian Society of America and the American Association of Zookeepers.
Through her business, Ambassador Exotics, Plott raises captive-bred exotic animals and prepares them for human interaction at environmental education facilities.
Among her current animals are two African servals, three cotton-top tamarins, two Greater African bush babies, an owl monkey and two goats.
A yearlong county moratorium on exotic animals that expired Tuesday so affected that part of her operation that she had to go to work at her father's store in High Point to replace the income.
Being away also takes time from her research.
"Through my nonprofit, The Zoological Studies Foundation, I research practical ways for animal care facilities and owners of captive species to provide environmental enrichment for their animals," Plott said.
She disagrees with some animal rights activists who believe no wild animals should be captive.
As natural habitats disappear, she believes it is inevitable they will be bred in captivity, and she is interested in discovering ways to improve their quality of life.
She said her mission is to be a "good steward of God's creatures."
Plott said she had not only been harmed by the moratorium but would be severely affected by a proposed exotic animal ordinance if it is adopted in its present form.
"I have taken every effort to ensure the public's safety and the well-being of my animals," she said. "I exceed all the regulations. I could have spent about $5,000, but I spent $20,000."
The enclosure is constructed of 9-gauge chain-link fencing that is 12 feet tall.
The 4-inch poles are sunk in concrete below the ground. Entry requires passing through two doors, and each lock has a different key.
"This is a 100 percent no-contact facility," Plott explained. "Nobody has to touch her."
The den looks like an 8-by-8-foot outbuilding with no windows.
It has double-guillotine doors on each side.
The first door is made of chain link fencing material, the second of heavy wood backed by metal plating.
One set of doors are designed for a transport cage to be fastened to it when the lion is removed from the enclosure, as was the case Oct. 6 when Sasha had to have a full hysterectomy.
Plott said she discovered ovarian tumors have caused the lioness to roar more than normal in past months.
Asked if there was a possibility the lion might escape if a storm blew a tree down, collapsing the fence, Plott said it was very unlikely.
She said the lion goes into the den whenever there is a storm because the noise frightens the animal.
"She wouldn't go anywhere," Plott assured. "Lions are very territorial. This is her home."
She also pointed to the secondary 8-foot wooden fence, which she said the lion is incapable of leaping over and cannot climb because the front paws are declawed.
Sgt. Rusty Everhart, a county animal control officer, said he has visited Plott's facility. He called her safeguards "more than adequate."
"She's got a class act," Everhart said. "She's really gone above and beyond what most folks ever think of doing."
Plott has followed the development of the ordinance from the beginning and attended most of the committee meetings.
She has many points of disagreement with the final draft but hopes specifically to see an exemption extended to USDA-licensed facilities like hers.
"I am in agreement that Davidson County should have reasonable exotic animal ordinances that limit the ownership to USDA licensees of certain larger exotic animals, such as lions and bears," Plott said.
"This ordinance confuses the issue between pets and animals that would, should or could only legally be owned, bred or exhibited by permitted and licensed businesses and organizations."