When Stacy and Tom Gunderson bought their Agua Dulce ranch, they were told that it was zoned for resort and recreation.
“We were told when we bought the house that Montie Montana, the famous cowboy, had (owned) it and that, if we wanted, we could have animal menageries and helicopter pads and all this crazy stuff,” said Stacy Gunderson, director of Animal Tracks Inc.
“We had paperwork in our file that said we could have it,” she added, “and that was all true, if we had gotten a conditional use permit — that’s the part that no Realtor told us.”
Now, nearly 20 years later, the Gundersons have created an animal sanctuary, only to find out they never had permission to do so.
Then to now
“We’re kids, we bought this beautiful house, we work in the movie industry, and the animals live at a ranch in Acton,” Gunderson said. “So we would go pick up the animals, go do the movie job, and then bring them back to Acton, and come home to our home with no animals.”
It was only in 2008, when a friend’s nonprofit, which took in exotic animals in need of a home, was in danger of going under that Animal Tracks Inc. was born.
“At the time, I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, my husband was a movie animal trainer and he was busy traveling the world making movies, and I was a stay-at-home mom trying to take care of an animal sanctuary in my spare time,” she added.
The sanctuary struggled to make ends meet until just recently, breaking even in 2015 only after getting new board members that were able to help get it on the right track.
By 2019, they had it figured out — having visitors come to see the animals from all over the world, except Antarctica and the Arctic Circle — until the county came looking for their permits.
“I go to my file, where I’ve got my house papers, and (there’s) no actual permit, just paperwork that says I can have these things,” Gunderson said. “So I show them that, and they said, ‘Yeah, if you had gotten it then, you could have saved, but since you never got your conditional use permit, your zoning changed in 2012, and you’re now here illegally.’”
Fixing their mistake
Over the years, the sanctuary has allowed Gunderson to educate families, something she hopes to be able to continue to do.
“We’re out because we want to change the world for the better,” she said. “When you come here … we’re not going to make them dress up, we’re not going to make them do tricks, we’re going to ask that you refrain from even touching them, because you’re a stranger.”
It’s only then, Gunderson said, something magical happens: The animal feels safe, allowing guests to witness their natural behaviors up close and personal.
“The animal knows that nobody’s here to make them do something they don’t want to do, and that’s the secret,” she said. “People love it — I love it. I’m 51 years old. I’ve been doing this since I was 18. I took over Animal Tracks in 2008, and I wake up every day excited to do this. It is a labor of love.
“We want the next generation to love the animals just because they’re animals, and we need more of that,” she added.
Gunderson hopes to continue that mission, as she raises funds to help her do so.
“We’re looking at $100,000 for the move … and we’re looking at probably anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 in permitting,” she said, adding that any money left over would be used to make the new facility bigger, better, faster, stronger.
“We just want people to know what’s going on so that if they want to support us, they can.”