Canada’s exotic-animal laws need teeth, zoo officials say

DIRK MEISSNER
Canadian Press
May 14, 2007 at 8:43 PM EDT

Victoria — Zoo officials say Canada needs to put some teeth into laws that govern dangerous animals in captivity, but they also acknowledge that new laws with bite could ultimately prevent private citizens from owning wild exotic creatures.

The mauling death of a B.C. woman by a captive tiger at a private zoo-like facility in the province’s Interior has many people involved in animal protection criticizing the dearth of laws to restrict exotic animal ownership.

Tanya Dumstrey-Soos, 32, was standing near the tiger’s cage last week when the animal clawed at her legs. Two of her teenage children were nearby when the incident occurred and they saw her bleed to death.

The director of one of Canada’s oldest private zoos said the incident near 100 Mile House is a tragedy, especially since it appears the animal was able to somehow reach out of its cage and swipe at the woman.

Michael Hackenberger of the Bowmanville Zoo near Toronto, said the patchwork of laws and regulations across Canada relating to wild animals in captivity is “crummy.”

“Nowhere in Canada is it illegal for a private individual to own a lion or tiger,” he said. “I question the necessity for people to have pet tigers and lions.”

Mr. Hackenberger said laws and regulations governing captive wild animals vary province by province and some are governed by municipal bylaws.

The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a nationwide accreditation process for keeping dangerous animals, but joining the organization is voluntary.

Mr. Hackenberger said the organization inspects all facets of a zoo’s operation from its cages to its books.

He suggested governments across Canada look at the association’s guidelines when considering new laws and regulations involving captive wild animals. But he admitted the current process is expensive, with association-approved animal enclosure costing at least $100,000.

Ontario and Alberta are in the midst of animal regulatory reviews that are considering the group’s guidelines, Mr. Hackenberger said.

“We’ve got the expertise to implement it,” he said. “We just need some governmental will.”

B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the province is conducting a review of its animal regulations in the wake of the tiger tragedy at 100 Mile House.

He said he doesn’t expect the government to ban keeping exotic dangerous animals in captivity, but with a 150 per cent increase in the numbers of exotic animals in British Columbia, the current rules need review.

Rob Laidlaw, a spokesman for Zoocheck Canada Inc., said Canada’s laws at private animal facilities are a patchwork mess that allow unqualified people to keep dangerous animals.

“It’s just a patchwork,” he said. “It’s really a mess.”

Mr. Laidlaw, whose organization attempts to protect the well-being of animals, said accreditation standards for the zoos and aquariums are too rigorous and costly for many of the private animal keepers with tigers, lions and other dangerous animals on their property.

Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards are geared for facilities like the Calgary Zoo or Vancouver’s Aquarium, not “for the guy with a tiger in his yard.”

Mr. Laidlaw said he favours prohibiting most people from keeping tigers and lions, because any legislation that comes close to CAZA standards essentially amounts to a de facto ban of the animals.

He estimated there are 15,000 captive tigers in North America. Most of the animals have health problems ranging from obesity to mental issues.

“Here in Ontario we see a lot of grossly obese big cats,” Mr. Laidlaw said.

CAZA spokesman Bill Peters said of the up to 800 estimated facilities in Canada with exotic wild animals like tigers and lions, 24 are accredited by his organization.

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