In the woods of Chatham County, where songbirds call to each other, two neighbors say they are each working to benefit the community.
But in doing so, they also have divided it, with some people rallying behind Siglinda Scarpa and the more than 220 cats her organization cares for and others backing Mark Atkeson and his recently opened private shooting range.
Range 2A aims to provide gun-control training and practice for gun owners, local law enforcement and military, Atkeson said.
About 600 feet away from the back of his property, Scarpa runs Goathouse Refuge, which rescues and cares for cats from kill shelters.
She, her employees and volunteers say the nearby shooting is constant and disruptive to the felines.
“I’m not anti-gun – I own guns,” said Burke Ard, who works at Goathouse. “It’s just ridiculous right next to this. We’re trying to help cats.”
Atkeson, originally from Michigan, said he’s tried to be a good neighbor but that he’s received hate mail and threats from some animal sympathizers.
Some Goathouse volunteers voiced concerns about zoning laws, noise and safety at a Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting this week.
But Walter Petty, chairman of the board, responded that there are no zoning restrictions keeping Atkeson from opening a gun range. Likewise, no rules prevented Goathouse’s operation, either, he said.
Effect on cats?
Scarpa, 73, lives at the refuge, often working until 1 a.m., either caring for sick kittens or shaping delicate pottery in her art gallery there. She sells pottery to help pay for expensive veterinary costs – up to $13,000 on one animal.
Nine dogs, four goats and more than a dozen chickens – all rescued – cohabit with the cats. The skinny felines seem to ignore the gunshots except to occasionally stare wide-eyed toward the sound, tails twitching.
However, Scarpa said that they are not eating well and that they hide when the shots start. One diabetic cat, Ryan, suffered a high fever during the beginning of the shooting, she said.
The sanctuary’s full-time veterinarian, Jess Huff, said the stress the cats are feeling can induce excessive grooming, lack of eating and even feline infectious peritonitis, a deadly viral disease.
Atkeson, 44, isn’t so sure. He said he asked a gun range member who is a veterinarian what harm could come to the animals. He said she rolled her eyes and said, “They’re fine.”
He also said his own young dog is hardly fazed, as shown by a video on the Range 2A Facebook page.
When Atkeson bought the 71 acres, he said he was unaware of the animal sanctuary next door, because Google Earth labeled the location as an art gallery.
To get to the eight bays at Range 2A, members drive through a long, gravel road that cuts through dense foliage, mostly pine.
The property contains sound well, Atkeson said, and his berms are built into a gradual hill for safety. He specifically chose the property for these elements, he said, and left Goathouse’s property line undeveloped to isolate sound.
Atkeson said he has created a facility treasured by local gun owners and military members, including wounded veterans who train.
“I feel very strongly about our military. I feel very strongly about preparing them for what we send them to,” he said. “Our soldiers are more important.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Tom DiTomasso helped design the range and emphasized that instructors monitor safety through regular inspections.
“There is no automatic machine gunfire in any of our training,” DiTomasso said. “I know for a fact that Mark is following the law.”
Atkeson selects the 30-plus range members carefully, he said. They need a personalized access card to come and go, and Atkeson, his staff and nine instructors constantly monitor them.
He also plans to offer women-only classes and self-defense classes. He would like to train the Chatham Sheriff’s Department to better protect children in schools.
Petty, the commissioners chairman, suggested that Goathouse look to Chatham’s noise ordinance in an attempt to find resolution.
Atkeson said he proactively plans to meet with the Sheriff’s Department next week to complete a noise study.
Also, Atkeson said any future expansions will be in the opposite direction of Goathouse.
No solution in sight
Still, a solution seems unlikely anytime soon.
Supporters of the animal refuge have gathered more than 5,000 signatures on a Change.org petition addressed to the Board of Commissioners to “stop the shooting range.” They also have started an additional Facebook page just for their cause: “Save the Goathouse Refuge.”
Atkeson said his personal information has been posted online by those opposed to him. And he said his first encounter with Scarpa was when she trespassed on his property to scold him about the back-up beeper on his bulldozer stressing out the cats.
“I would love to work something out with her,” he said. “I have yet to be approached by anybody who’s been remotely polite and has any say in what they do over there.”
Goathouse said it recently canceled a fundraiser because of noise from the gun range. Atkeson said he would have been willing to work out a compromise.
“I can close for four hours,” he said. “It’s not hard. I’m totally willing to do those things, but I’m not closing forever. If we work together, I’m fine with that.”
Scarpa remains adamant.
“I feel like a humungous yellow jacket. I want to sting everybody around here,” she said. “I’m very serious about kicking their butt.”