Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh No!

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh No!

Congressman wants to outlaw exotic pets

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Animal Legislation | Wildlife Journal |

Citing pet ownership of certain exotic species as “a growing national problem that must be addressed,” California Representative George Miller introduced HR 5226, the Captive Wildlife Protection Act, on July 25 to ban private ownership, transport, or possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or bears bought and sold in interstate commerce.

Only those who keep exotics as pets will be affected if the bill passes. HR 5226 exempts federal licensees such as circuses, zoos, research institutions, and aquariums; individuals accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries or the American Sanctuary Association; state universities and agencies; state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians; incorporated humane organizations; federally-licensed breeders and dealers working with circuses, zoos, and other exempted organizations or agencies; and transporters who possess the animal only for delivery to an exempted organization or agency.

Opposition is building. Private owners who keep their animals in conditions that meet or exceed those found in zoos and sanctuaries object to bans they say will cause the deaths of many animals when no other homes can be found and obscure the fact that the vast majority of incidents involving big cats take place in institutions that are already regulated.



The bill

HR 5226 is a bare bones version of the Shambala Wild Animal Protection Act of 2000, a bill to amend the Animal Welfare Act that died in the last session of Congress. The new effort is structured as an amendment to the Lacey Act, the law governing ownership, possession, or transport of plants and wildlife acquired in violation of any treaty or state or federal law. Where Shambala regulated private ownership of exotics, Miller’s bill bans a handful of species as too dangerous to be kept as pets no matter how responsible or knowledgeable the owners might be.

Miller said his bill will protect the public and the animals, and he has compiled a list of organizations that agree, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the US, the Fund for Animals, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Miller cited three instances in which members of the public were bitten by privately-owned exotics – one in Florida in 2002 and two in Texas in 2001. Two involved tigers; the third involved a lion.

“Problems arise because most owners are ignorant of a wild animal’s needs, and local veterinarians, sanctuaries, animal shelters, and local governments are ill equipped to meet the challenge of providing proper care,” Miller said. “Wild animals, especially such large and uniquely powerful animals as lions and tigers, should be kept in captivity by professional zoological facilities. Only curators of these facilities have the knowledge and know-how to meet the animals behavioral, physical, and nutritional needs.”

He said that a federal bill is only part of the solution and urged that states pass their own legislation to prevent individuals from owning exotic animals as pets. Several states regulate exotic animal ownership and some states and local governments ban some species.

HR 5226 is heavily supported by the Humane Society of the US and has gained several sponsors in the past few weeks.



Ban opponents

Many who own exotic animals dispute Miller’s evidence and conclusions. They point out that

  • zoos and other licensed facilities have more incidents involving exotics than private owners;
  • private owners provide a reservoir of individual animals for inclusion in a species recovery effort;
  • more tigers are in private hands in the US than in zoos or in natural habitats;
  • existing sanctuaries and zoos do not have the space to take the animals now in private hands, leaving thousands of big cats to be killed if bans are instituted; and
  • private owners devote themselves to the study of nutrition, behavior, and reproduction of exotics and thus add to the body of knowledge of these animals.

The Phoenix Exotic Wildlife Association and LIOC Endangered Species Conservation Federation support responsible private ownership through education and assist zoos and other organizations involved in endangered species research.

LIOC outlines several principles for ownership of exotic cats and urges who are unwilling to meet their obligation to the animals and the public to choose a more traditional pet.

Phoenix shares Miller’s stated goal to “protect the safety of the American public and to protect the welfare of wild animals that are increasingly being maintained as pets,” said organization president Jeanne Hall. “We do not agree with his solution to encourage and legislate bans on private ownership.”

Hall said that “many private, non-regulated owners provide for their exotics in a manner that far exceeds the requirements put forth by regulations.”

She also questioned exemptions for members of The Association of Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association.

“In addition, two private corporations, TAOS and ASA, are listed within the legislation as exempted. These are not government organizations, and to thus set these two private corporations above the many similar, and sometimes even better, groups engaged in dedicated work for animal welfare is unconscionable,” she said. “Some groups and individuals that do work similar to TAOS or ASA members would fall into the banned category. Some exist in locations that do not require licensing, and as they do not make money from their work with the animals, they are not licensed or regulated by the USDA or other government agencies.”

Hall said that Phoenix takes no position on the bill, but she notes that members have traditionally opposed government regulation of pets. She urged members to examine the issues that affect private ownership of exotic animals, to attend local hearings, and keep in touch with legislators.


NAIA policy on exotic animal ownership

The human-animal bond is not limited to traditional pets such as dogs, cats, birds, and fish that can be kept with a minimum of fuss. Exotic pets (fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, or mammals) of non-native species or individuals of native species that have been raised in captivity are treasured by many people who appreciate their adaptations, behavior and beauty. NAIA supports private breeding and ownership of these animals under regulations that provide for their welfare and, if necessary, protect public safety. NAIA also believes that those who continue to educate themselves about the needs of their animals and keep them in a manner that is appropriate to the animal and society should be allowed to keep them.

Exotic animals may exist as wild populations in native habitats, as captive-bred populations to be sold as pets or livestock, and as captive-bred populations in controlled breeding programs to protect genetic diversity in a declining species. There is limited space available for housing rare animals at zoos and preserves, so private citizens who have acquired special admiration for and detailed knowledge of particular species and who maintain the animals at their own expense are invaluable to the preservation of many exotic species. NAIA therefore supports the responsible ownership of exotics, partnerships between private owners and institutions working to save endangered species, permit systems for certain species that pose a public safety threat, and regulatory mechanisms based on need. NAIA also encourages professional organizations that work to raise the level of care, handling, and training of these animals.

Because few children have the opportunity to work with native or exotic animal species and to observe their behavior and adaptations, NAIA also supports the keeping of non-venomous reptiles and amphibians and other appropriate exotic animals in school classes for study under the guidance of teachers experienced in their handling and care.


About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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