Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved. – Jane Goodall
On October 18, 2011, a mentally unstable man released 56 exotic animals from his private collection into his rural community before he committed suicide. Panic ensued as residents of Zanesville, Ohio watched their town become a scene from Jumanji. Lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, primates, and bears took to the streets, and open season was announced as authorities hunted the wild animals for two days. No one knows exactly why Terry Thompson—a man who had been released from federal prison less than a month before the incident—set the animals free or why he took his own life, but the end result was one dead man and 51 dead animals, including 18 Bengal tigers. The remaining animals (2 leopards, 2 primates, and a black bear) were returned to Thompson’s widow in May after having been cared for at the Columbus Zoo. The state was unsuccessful in its attempts to keep the exotic animals at the zoo.
Despite Ohio’s having admitted a lack of authority and having returned the animals to the widow, the state refuses to find itself in a similar situation again. On June 6, Governor Kasich signed a bill that bans new ownership of certain exotic animals, including large cats and certain primates. The new law will take effect on January 1, 2014, but current owners will be allowed to keep their exotic animals by obtaining a permit and meeting various conditions. Although Ohio was once one of seven states without any exotic animal regulation, Ohio is now in a position to educate and regulate the safety of both residents and animals.
How Does North Carolina Stack Up?
North Carolina leaves exotic animal laws to its counties and cities. However, North Carolina requires an entry permit from the State Veterinarian before importing skunks, foxes, raccoons, ringtails, bobcats, North and South American felines, coyotes, martens, and brushtail possums. Attempts to pass state-wide laws governing the regulation of exotic pets have repeatedly failed.
The Wake County Animal Ordinance prohibits individuals from keeping animals considered “inherently dangerous mammals” within Wake County. This ban includes any member of the dog family that is not customarily domesticated by man, any member of the cat family weighing in over fifteen pounds and not customarily domesticated by man, and any member of the bear family. There are exemptions for traveling zoos, circuses, etc., and licensed research facilities. Durham County has a similar ordinance that includes primates and members of the Crocodillia family.
But not all counties have ordinances, and obtaining an exotic animal in North Carolina is relatively easy. A quick Google search provided me with an advertisement and contact information of a breeder in Elizabeth City, a town not far from where I grew up. The ad read “We are a breeder of a wide variety of exotic animals such as cheetah cubs, cougar cubs, jaguar cubs, leopard cubs, black panther babies, lion cubs, yellow and white Siberian tigers and Bengal tiger cubs.” The breeder of these cats claims to offer “tamed babies” and “well-trained exotic pets” for low prices. The cubs are sold between the ages of 10 and 19 weeks, and come with the promise of being “easy to handle.” Depending on the breeder, tiger cubs can range from $200 to $2,000. (To put that into perspective, a registered Labrador puppy ranges in price from $300 to $1,300 and adoption fees for kittens average over $100.)
The Role of Rescues
Because private ownership and breeding of exotic animals is not regulated nation-wide, the actual numbers of big cats and other exotics kept in private collections is unknown. But a common estimate claims there are more tigers in private collections throughout the states than left in the wild. While many exotic felines are owned as “pets,” tigers are a big favorite among “collectors.” Big cat rescues are becoming inundated as people surrender or abandon their “pet” once it grows up, or as the groups are asked to rescue an exotic from unsafe and inhumane environments.
In the 1970’s, UNC geneticist Dr. Michael Bleyman founded the Carnivore Evolutionary Research Institute with the intent to breed lesser-known carnivores in an effort to keep a viable population of these animals in trust until their natural habitats could support them again. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1981, the name changed to the Carnivore
Preservation Trust (CPT) and the organization became well-known for its breeding program. Because of CPT’s experience and reputation, people began to approach them to take in large cats and the mission of the organization changed to accommodate this rescue element. Breeding ceased in 2000 and CPT began developing the required infrastructure to accommodate abused and neglected wildcats. In 2009, the organization changed its name to reflect this new mission. Today, what started as a research institute is now the Carolina Tiger Rescue, a nonprofit wildcat sanctuary whose mission is saving and protecting wildcats in both captivity and the wild. There are currently 70 animals that call the Carolina Tiger Rescue home.
According to Pam Fulk, Executive Director at Carolina Tiger Rescue, the reasons for regulation of private ownership of big cats boil down to public safety, animal welfare, and conservation. “We have no way of knowing how many big cats are in private hands, where they are, how they’re secured, etc. Every year there are injuries and deaths as a result. A natural disaster like a hurricane could result in a tragedy,” said Fulk. “People breed indiscriminately and when those animals grow up, are often unprepared for reality. They destroy them or use them to make money or try to dump them on rescues. There is not enough space for all of them now and it will only get worse.” To make a devastating situation even worse, rescue groups are diverting resources from protecting these animals in their natural habitats to combat the issues created by private ownership.
The problems faced by Carolina Tiger Rescue are not unique to North Carolina; rescues around the nation are finding themselves too full, spread too thin, and are forced to turn away big cats in need of rescue. The world’s largest sanctuary for abused, abandoned, and retired exotics cats is located in Tampa, Florida. According to Big Cat Rescue’s website, most of the 100 cats in residence were former pets abandoned by their owners. The rescue has turns away over 100 cats each year.
Joe Taft cares for over 200 animals at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana. Taft rescues the cats from all over the United States, and for every cat he accepts into the rescue he is forced to turn away 40. In a 2011 interview with Indiana Daily Student, Taft blamed irresponsible private ownership and the inadequate and even inhumane requirements for an ownership permit provided by the Department of Natural Resources. Twenty-one states allow ownership with such a permit, including Indiana.
These are just three examples of big cat rescues spread across the United States. There are multiple exotic rescue groups and they are all doing the best they can with the resources available to them in efforts to educate and protect. Private ownership, irresponsible breeding, a lack of education concerning owning exotic felines, and a general lack of regulations have created a dire situation for some of the world’s most beautiful animals.
According to groups such as Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, it is easier to buy a tiger or other exotic animal in some states than to adopt a kitten or purchase a black lab. The relative ease of procuring an exotic and the lack of regulation in owning and breeding them has been a concern for years, but the tragedy in Ohio exposed the issue on a larger stage. Since October 2011, several states have been researching and exploring changes to their exotics laws and in February, two representatives from California introduced the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act. The Act would require owners of big cats such as tigers and leopards to register with the Department of Agriculture. Breeding of such animals would be banned except at approved institutions. A hearing will be held before Congress in September. Opponents of the act argue that their rights are being infringed upon and regulating exotics is the first step to further regulation of domesticated pets such as dogs and cats. But regulation of undomesticated, wild animals will not result in further regulation of domesticated pets because the objectives are entirely different; public safety and conservation concerns do not arise in discussion of regulating dog and cat ownership. Exotic animal laws not only protect individuals, they also serve to protect beautiful animals that are not and never should be “pets.” After all, a tiger is not a tabby.