EDITORIAL: Wild things aren’t pets

Palm Beach Post Editorial
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last week came another reminder that the state shouldn’t allow people to keep wild, potentially dangerous animals unless they actually know how to take care of wild, potentially dangerous animals.

The Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office filed two misdemeanor charges in the mauling in November of a 4-year-old girl at a Coral Gables birthday party. Francisco Unanue, president of Goya Foods, got the bright idea to throw his daughter a party that featured a 62-pound cougar. The big cat came from a company owned, according to reports in The Miami Herald, by an ex-Hooters waitress who once posed for a Playboy video.

In 1999, the paper reported, Corinne Oltz was convicted of a similar violation after an incident involving one of her animals. In 2001, a leopard attacked a child at a birthday party, and Ms. Oltz got probation. An investigator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told the Herald that the leopard’s bite “was a fraction of an inch from going to the brain stem. That would have killed the kid instantly.” In November, according to investigators, the 4-year-old birthday guest walked up from behind and surprised the cougar, which then grabbed the left side of the girl’s face. If Mr. Unanue wanted to make a break from the usual clown and balloons, he did.

This will seem familiar to residents of this area, who watched in 2004 as wildlife officers pursued a tiger that had escaped from a compound in western Palm Beach County. Third-rate Tarzan actor Steve Sipek, apparently unable to get out of character, had amassed several cats. When a wildlife officer sadly but correctly had to shoot Bobo the tiger, the officer drew criticism that should have been directed at Mr. Sipek.

The state, which in 1980 had banned the keeping of such pets, had let Mr. Sipek slide on adding to the animals he had bought before the ban. But a year after Bobo got out, Mr. Sipek had been able to buy two new tiger cubs. A year after that, he got around the state law even more by registering as an exhibitor.

Florida, and this area in particular, are lucky enough to have lots of well-qualified zoos, research centers and sanctuaries for animals that aren’t suitable pets or have been abandoned. Local and state politicians also are doing more to restrict the trade in exotic creatures. With pythons threatening to upset the balance in the Everglades and iguanas overrunning some neighborhoods, Florida has to start saving itself from problems caused by the wrong animals being in the wrong places. One way is to prosecute those who cause the problems.

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/opinion/content/opinion/ epaper/2007/07/31/m10a_cougar_edit_0731.html

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