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Are You Living Next To An Exotic Animal?

Photo from Carole Baskin

Tampa's Big Cat Rescue is among the 400 Florida locations where people keep animals requiring a license.

Published: March 17, 2009

Updated: 05:00 am

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TAMPA – Susan Williams lives among cattle ranches and a growing number of new homes.

So she was more than a little surprised a couple years ago when rumors circulated that her neighbor had a tiger and a grizzly bear on his Okeechobee property.

Williams' curiosity led her to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Sure enough, the neighbor had permits for a tiger, a grizzly and four other bears.

"I was astounded," Williams said. "I couldn't believe he didn't have to tell us that these animals were out there."

The wildlife commission is tweaking its requirements for people who own exotic animals, and Williams is among a group pushing for neighborhood notification when people have exotic and dangerous species.

Many of the most dangerous animals in Florida aren't in zoos or sanctuaries. They are in people's houses, at fledgling private animal attractions or in once-rural settings now surrounded by subdivisions.

The risks of living next to dangerous species have been on people's minds since a pet chimpanzee in Connecticut attacked a 55-year-old woman on Feb. 16. Closer to home, former Lowry Park Zoo President Lex Salisbury made nationwide news in April when 15 patas monkeys escaped from the exotic animal park he is building north of Lakeland.

More than 400 Florida businesses and individuals have Class I or Class II permits required for the most wild and lethal species. These permit holders can have animals including lions and elephants, alligators and monkeys. The Tampa Bay area is home to more than 30 licenses, including Lowry Park Zoo, Big Cat Rescue and a 7-acre refuge where a Tampa woman has a cougar and a leopard.

Three years of public hearings over the rule changes fueled tension between some animal owners who wish to keep their collections private and neighbors fearful of dangerous species living so close to residential areas.

Some of the 14 proposed changes are less controversial, such as changing the American alligator to a Class II animal.

For now, at least, Williams' neighborhood notification is not among the proposed changes.

Wildlife officials decided notification wouldn't do much good because neighborhood objections aren't grounds for denying a permit, said Capt. Linda Harrison, a commission spokeswoman.

Instead, the commission focused on setting strict criteria for the most dangerous species, such as requiring a minimum of 5 acres, property that allows commercial uses, and a host of fencing and caging stipulations.

Gini Valbuena shares the fears of many animal owners. She worries that notification will breed curiosity among thrill-seekers who might scale fences for a look at the exotic species, risking injury and potentially terrorizing the animals.

More fundamentally, she says, it's her business what she does on her own property. So long as she has the necessary permits and follows the laws, it's nobody else's business, she says.

"I don't think animals should be in the same classification as sexual predators in terms of notification," said Valbuena, who owns two chimpanzees she rents for parties and one-on-one encounters. "It's a total invasion."

Valbuena said she had problems with a neighbor who tormented her chimps and regularly complained to authorities about the animals.

After 28 years in her home, she moved her chimps to Sarasota a few weeks ago.

Deborah Cazin has a cougar and leopard on 7 acres in an upscale area just south of the Avila Golf & Country Club.

She gets the exotic cats when the state seizes them from owners who either run out of money or aren't able to care for the animals. She has taken in primates and other exotic species as well.

In her 30 years working with exotic cats, the only one to escape was a serval, about the size of a bobcat. She quickly captured the cat and returned it to its cage.

Cazin said exotic animals should be kept in rural areas like her property on Lake Byrd, which is zoned for agriculture. "I don't think they should be in people's backyards."

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, said she worries wildlife officials will appease some animal owners by relaxing a law that requires people who exhibit exotic animals to carry a $10,000 bond to pay for damages.

Big Cat Rescue is aware of 584 incidents since 1990 involving captive exotic cats in the United States. Those confrontations resulted in the deaths of 16 adults and five children, along with the mauling of 193 people.

Like Williams, Baskin worries that hurricanes and other natural disasters could damage cages and fencing, sending deadly animals into neighborhoods among unknowing residents.

This week, she sent a letter to neighbors of exotic animal owners stressing the dangers of living next to cougars, tigers, cobras and black mambas.

"Keeping wild animals in private collections is cruel to the animals and dangerous for you," she wrote.

Baskin plans to forward neighbors' comments and concerns to wildlife officials before the board makes its final decision on the changes June 17 and 18 in Crystal River.

Tired of your creature?

You can surrender exotic pets you no longer want, free of charge and with no questions asked, during a one-day-only event in Miami. Efforts will be made to find homes for pets that are healthy. Exotic reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals will be accepted. Domestic pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets – will not. The amnesty day will be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Miami MetroZoo, 12400 S.W. 152nd St., off Florida's Turnpike southeast of Miami.

Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668.

Post your comments at:

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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