Captive wildlife rules get added scrutiny

AVMA, VMAs, state governments considering changes
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Ohio wildlife, health, and agriculture agencies will investigate and inspect locations where wild, dangerous animals are privately held, and will collect information on the numbers and types of such animals in the state, according to an executive order from Gov. John R. Kasich.

Following the deaths in mid-October of 49 large cats, bears, primates, and wolves that had been held by a private collector in Ohio, the governor ordered state agencies to use existing authority to increase scrutiny of dangerous-animal ownership while a task force develops a proposal for the General Assembly to increase regulation of such animals.

The AVMA is encouraging governors to increase restrictions on private ownership of wild animals such as tigers. This tiger is not connected with problems experienced in Ohio and other states where such animals have attacked or posed a risk to humans.

In early November, the AVMA sent letters signed by President René A. Carlson requesting that the governors of Alabama, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin increase restrictions on private ownership of wild animals in their states. The letters note the AVMA policy "Private Ownership of Wild Animals," which recommends limiting or prohibiting private ownership of animals that pose significant risks to the health of the public, domestic animals, or the ecosystem, and ownership of species whose welfare would be unacceptably compromised.

"The AVMA respectfully urges your administration to strengthen regulations restricting private ownership of these species, and would be happy to provide technical assistance on this matter," the letters state.

In Ohio, reports from the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office indicate that the owner of the animals, Terry Thompson, was believed to have killed himself after opening cages and cutting holes in fences housing his animals. Police shot most of the escaped animals, and only three leopards, two monkeys, and a grizzly bear survived. Those animals were taken in by the Columbus Zoo.

Following the incident, the Ohio VMA released a statement in support of legislative and regulatory efforts to restrict private ownership of such wild animals.

"The possession of exotic and dangerous animals by private individuals presents a clear risk to public safety, as well as unnecessarily compromising animal welfare," the VMA stated.

The South Carolina Association of Veterinarians also planned to write a letter to Gov. Nikki Haley in support of the AVMA position, according to Marie B. Queen, SCAV executive director.

Other state veterinary associations were considering the issue.

Dr. Charles F. Franz, executive director of the Alabama VMA, said the ALVMA Executive Board supports the AVMA policy on private ownership of wild animals. He noted that his state has restrictions on owning indigenous species but not exotics.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources indicates it is illegal, however, to keep wildlife, canids, or felids for which no rabies vaccines are approved.

Kim Brown Pokorny, executive director of the Wisconsin VMA, clarified after the AVMA letters were sent that her state restricts possession of most native wild animals. Information from the Wisconsin Legislature and the Department of Natural Resources indicates a license is needed to own non-native species deemed harmful, including bears and cougars.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has also been considering changes to state law that would affect the private ownership of wild animals, according to Tina L. Stinson, a spokeswoman for the governor. She noted that the administration continually reviews state code to improve safety and align with other states, and no decisions had been made.

Vicki Smith, executive director of the Idaho VMA, said her organization did not have a policy on private ownership of wild animals, but the issue was expected to be on the IVMA's Executive Board meeting agenda Nov. 19. Smith said veterinarians are not typically supportive of private ownership of wild animals, partly because of disease risks.

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, said that following the 1995 escapes from a private collection, which included wolves and crossbred large cats, Idaho increased restrictions on possession of such animals. Regulations passed since then prohibit anyone from possessing a "deleterious exotic animal" in Idaho without a permit from the state department of agriculture, which examines conditions of confinement and determines what is needed to ensure good health, welfare, safety, and security. The regulations affect non-native animals and hybrids dangerous to the environment, livestock, agriculture, or wildlife.

Dr. David T. Marshall, North Carolina's state veterinarian, recalled a December 2003 fatal tiger mauling in Millers Creek, which is in the northwest part of the state. Otherwise, he said, privately owned wild animals have not caused major problems in the state. Associated Press archives state that, in the 2003 incident, a 10-year-old boy was shoveling snow near a Bengal tiger's chain-link enclosure when the animal dragged him in through an opening that was intended to allow the family dog to enter the cage.

Dr. Marshall noted that his state has studied the issue of inherently dangerous animals, particularly through a study commission that was mandated by the legislature in 2006 and that included his and other state departments.

In 2007, a bill that failed to pass in North Carolina's General Assembly would have prohibited people from possessing, buying, breeding, or selling dangerous animals such as bats, wolves, primates, elephants, rhinoceroses, crocodiles, or pythons. Organizations exempt under the bill would have included zoos, veterinary hospitals, universities, and circuses, and those who already owned animals covered by the bill would have been allowed to keep the animals.

Dr. Marshall also noted that many county and municipal governments have implemented greater restrictions than the state.

An ordinance in Orange County, N.C., for example, prohibits any person or organization from keeping wild and dangerous animals within the county, with the exception of those kept for teaching or research purposes at the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. The ordinance applies to any felids other than house cats, nonhuman primates, bears, wolves, coyotes, reptiles, and crossbreeds of such animals that have similar characteristics. Another ordinance prohibits displays such as circuses or trade shows from including wild animals ranging from elephants to otters.

Just days before Kasich took office in Ohio this past January, outgoing Gov. Ted Strickland enacted an executive order prohibiting sales and ownership of many wild, dangerous animals such as big cats and bears. It was part of an agreement Strickland negotiated with the Humane Society of the United States and other groups on animal-related issues to avoid their planned ballot initiative (see JAVMA, Aug. 15, 2010). Officials with Kasich's office did not answer requests for information on why the new governor allowed that order to expire.

U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio encouraged Kasich to reinstate Strickland's expired executive order. In September 2010, she had also written to Strickland about a man who was killed a month earlier by a privately owned wild bear, and she had asked then-Gov. Strickland to prohibit wild animals from being privately owned, according to information from the congresswoman.