Emerald Sanctuary faces threat of closure


For more than 50 years, Emerald Sanctuary has been a quiet refuge for animals in need from all over Orange County. 

Emerald Sanctuary volunteer Joness Jones (left) and owner Kris Spitaleri (right) feed Nibbles and her two sisters on the sanctuary grounds. Clara Beard/LB Indy

From peacocks to llamas, snakes to pigeons, wild or domestic, Laguna Beach local and animal advocate Kris Spitaleri has nursed and cared for virtually countless animals otherwise destined for euthanasia or homelessness, giving them a second chance at life when their futures looked bleak. You name it, Spitaleri has probably cared for it at his family’s spacious property atop Emerald Bay, backed against Crystal Cove State Park.

“We never say no,” Spitaleri said. “We meet in parking lots, all hours of the night. We’ll always accept an animal, no matter the circumstances. If there is any reason we can’t take an animal, we find another place that can do it. We also follow up to make sure. We always find a way.”

Spitaleri pets one of the emus living at the Emerald Sanctuary. Clara Beard/LB Indy

Now, the sanctuary’s own future is uncertain despite its previously grandfathered-in land use by the County of Orange. Spitaleri, who operates the refuge with a handful of volunteers, was given an Aug. 30 deadline by OC Parks to evacuate his animals from the property and close operations due to permitting complications. 

“We’re optimistic about the outcome being positive,” Spitaleri said. “We have to be. The benefit to the park system and the county is pretty big. Right now, there are a lot of euthanizations going on, and there doesn’t have to be. We’re hopeful we can get this sorted out.”

The potential eviction prompted a meeting with county supervisor Katrina Foley, who sat down with Spitaleri and representatives from the sanctuary’s nonprofit partner Pacific Wildlife Project, earlier in August to listen to a presentation on why it should stay operational. The outcome of the meeting has yet to be formally announced, nor has the sanctuary’s future. 

“It was a meeting to gather the factual information on the history of the property. We are researching the options available,” Foley’s spokesperson said in an email. 

Jones feeds Nibbles the llama a banana. Clara Beard/LB Indy

After learning about the situation, volunteer Joness Jones, who helped generate substantial visibility around the sanctuary’s push to stay open and operational, started an online petition that has amassed more than 87 thousand signatures. 

“Kris has been doing this since the 70s, but he doesn’t like a lot of fanfare or attention. He just wants to help animals,” she said. “My phone is just going off constantly with letters of support. My inbox is flooded.”

Spitaleri’s parents, Vernon and Cherry, were well-known local business owners and philanthropists. Laguna Beach even decreed Jan. 22 as Vernon Spitaleri Day after his considerable contributions to the city. Vernon played a role in the 1968 acquisition of the city’s Main Beach park, developing what is now Providence Mission Hospital Laguna Beach. He helped establish the James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve and was involved with stopping the Laguna Art Museum’s controversial merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The Spitaleris also owned and published The Laguna News-Post until 1981.

“Kris just wants to continue the community service his parents started,” Jones said.

Those wishing to learn more about Emerald Sanctuary can visit its website at www.emeraldsanctuary.pacificwildlife.org or Instagram @the_emerald_sanctuary.

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  1. I’m very sad to just be hearing about this sanctuary. Is there something that residents can do? How about partnering with another non profit to gain publicity/help? We need to help all people who are willing to help animals. Please – tell us what we can do to help.

  2. Thank you for reporting on such an important story. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help with this permitting issue and donate to the long term efforts.
    It fills my heart with joy to know these wonderful people are providing sanctuary for these special animals.

  3. OMG! OMG! Everyone must do the right thing and save this immediately. Let’s move them to Sawdust because they only use grounds 40 days a year. Our Thousands of Rich Housewives need something to do, and they can volunteer. It’s too bad they didn’t clear the brush on the county park they’ve squatted on, but we can do this people.


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