Pa. bill would ban private ownership of exotic animals

One of three leopards that were captured by authorities Wednesday, a day after their owner released dozens of wild animals and then killed himself near Zanesville, Ohio.
One of three leopards that were captured by authorities Wednesday, a day after their owner released dozens of wild animals and then killed himself near Zanesville, Ohio. (GRAHM S. JONES / Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, AP)
Posted: October 21, 2011

Want to buy a camel? How about a tiger?

In Ohio, where a man this week freed his 56 wild animals before shooting himself, all you need is cash and a crate, and you can pick one up at any number of exotic animal auctions held there.

And if you live in Ohio, you need no permit to keep your new pet.

But don't think about bringing your purchase into Pennsylvania without a permit or taking it to New Jersey at all.

In Pennsylvania, ownership of most large wild animals, such as bears, lions, and other big cats, requires license holders - of whom there are currently only 28 - to complete a rigorous application and undergo annual inspections by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

New Jersey has outlawed the possession of "potentially dangerous animals," among them tigers, wolves, and alligators.

Both states ban the private ownership of primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees, and do not allow wild-animal auctions.

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers want to bring the state's law in line with New Jersey's, by enacting a similar ban on private ownership of most categories of large wild animals. The bill passed a House committee last spring and is awaiting action in the full chamber.

"My legislation would change the law so that ownership of specific wild animals for private entertainment would be considered the mistreatment of that wildlife, therefore protecting the safety of Pennsylvanians as well as these animals," Rep. Ed Staback (D., Lackawanna) said.

Across the country, a hodgepodge of weak or nonexistent state laws has led to the proliferation of legally and illegally kept wild animals and hundreds of cases of attacks, some fatal, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

Pacelle and leaders of animal welfare groups have stepped up calls for a ban of transport, trade, and ownership of so-called exotic animals since the shooting of 50 animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, that were released in Zanesville, Ohio, by their owner, who then killed himself. The animals were killed because they were deemed too dangerous to attempt to capture.

"These animals should not be kept in people's backyards, their basements, or bedrooms," Pacelle, in a conference call with reporters, said Thursday.

Licensed zoos that are accredited by a professional organization and permitted by state and federal authorities would be unaffected by these efforts.

No one was injured by any of the animals let free by Terry Thompson in Zanesville, in southeastern Ohio.

But animal advocates, while decrying the animals' slaughter, pointed to the public health and safety issue when animals escape or attack inexperienced handlers.

Across the country, near-daily incidents are reported, including the fatal mauling of a boy in Texas last week who was attacked by a pet mountain lion owned by his aunt.

Born Free USA, a wild-animal advocacy group, says it has tracked 1,500 attacks on humans or other animals, as well as escapes by exotic animals since 1990, including 51 incidents in Pennsylvania and 20 in New Jersey.

The Pennsylvania legislation was prompted by the fatal attack on an Allentown woman in 2009 by a captive black bear that had been raised from a cub.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), said Staback's bill was not on the "radar screen."

"What happened in Ohio was an aberration," said Miskin. "We should look at the Ohio situation more closely before jumping to put more laws on the books."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is vowing to crack down on backyard zoos that have proliferated in his nearly regulation-free state.

But game officials here say that the lax laws that have allowed wild-animal auctions and dealing to be conducted with little oversight in Ohio continue to put the public and animals at risk.

"The people who have the permits here are not our concern," said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which supports the Staback bill. "Our concern is the people who buy in Ohio and bring the animals to this state without a permit."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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