A Beaufort business owner has announced plans to reopen a Burton flea market, this time with a big twist -- a 6,000-square-foot enclosure for lions and tigers.
Beaufort Liquidation posted the "Safari Flea Market" announcement Tuesday to the Facebook account managed by owner Jeff Lowe.
The initial post -- which has been deleted -- and subsequent social media postings quickly led to an outpouring of online comments for and against the plan, as well as a petition to stop it.
Lowe opened a warehouse and flea market in summer 2013 at 5 Parker Drive, the former 84 Lumber building near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. That outdoor market was shut down last spring after Beaufort County officials decided not to exempt it from rules about businesses operating within a buffer zone near the air station.
Lowe has said he plans to open an indoor market at the same spot.
"The county's decision to close down my outdoor flea market awoke my passion for wild animals, so recently I started rebuilding the menagerie of exotics that I kept for many years prior to moving to Beaufort," according to the Facebook post.
The remodeled building will also include 150 flea-market tables, and Lowe intends to open by Black Friday, Nov. 28, according to the post. A veterinary clinic for low-cost animal care would be included, he wrote.
Social media and online reaction to the announcement was swift and mixed. Some posted words of support, curiosity and excitement.
Others, like Stacey Johnston, were concerned about the health and safety of the animals and the public.
"Animals, I think, serve a purpose in our society, but when I read this on Facebook, I could not believe this was approved through codes," she said.
Johnston began a Change.org petition calling on Beaufort County Council and Beaufort City Council to prevent the animal exhibit. Within about 24 hours, the petition had more than 1,000 signatures.
"I thought, 'I'm not going to sit here and let it go by,'" Johnston said. "I'm going to get as many people to take notice of this as I can."
It is legal to own big cats in South Carolina, and these are not Lowe's first exotic animals. He said he's been caring for large cats for decades.
"Nobody knows better how deadly they can potentially become when grown, and yes, I have owned fully grown cats," he wrote in an email Wednesday on his way back from Georgia. Lowe said he was returning to Beaufort after picking up a tiger cub born in a zoo that had no space for her.
"If people don't agree with my decision to spend my money helping animals that very few people can help, that's their right," he wrote. "There are thousands of these cats in backyards and apartments of drug dealers, and without people willing to step up to care for them, they would likely be destroyed."
Beaufort County attorney Josh Gruber said there are no regulations preventing the flea market from having animals on site. But he said the county would monitor activities to make sure all zoning regulations and local, state and federal laws are followed.
"The keeping of lions and/or tigers on this property is not currently regulated in any manner under our zoning code," he said. "Therefore, we will be primarily monitoring this aspect of Mr. Lowe's business from a safety and humane treatment standpoint."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.