By Tyra M. Vaughn,
Watha – Howard and Monica Loughlin are the proud parents of twin boys and a baby girl. And, like most new parents, if you ask the couple about them they can talk for hours.
They’ll tell you 4-year-old Baloo loves girls, and 4-year-old Teddy loves to hug. As for 1-year-old Cherry Bomb, they’ll tell you she earned her name because she can be a “stubborn firecracker.”
They hug them, kiss them and at times let them suck their thumbs.
Only Monica and Howard’s children aren’t your typical youngsters.
Pender County is one of the few counties in North Carolina that do not restrict exotic pets, and it’s the only county in the region without an exotic pet ordinance, said Kevin Curry, Pender County’s animal control director.
The New Hanover County Health Department has an ordinance banning the possession, selling and distribution of any animals other than cats and dogs. Brunswick County requires exotic pet owners to have federal, state and county permits.
“We don’t have any children, so we consider them our children,” said Monica Loughlin, 36. “They’re part of the family, and we treat them like they are.”
On any given afternoon, you can catch them out in the back yard of their Watha home rolling a ball, chasing and dancing with their “children.”
Teddy and Baloo are Himalayan black bears, native to Asia and related to the American black bear. Cherry Bomb is a grizzly bear, which is found in the western part of the United States.
Federal law prohibits importing exotic species, but there is no law against breeding them or owning them in the United States. North Carolina law only prohibits owning animals native to the state.
In recent years, Pender County has become a hotbed for exotic species. Snow leopards, serval cats, boa constrictors and monkeys have all lived in Pender County, and those are only the animals Curry said he knows about.
“People are moving into the county because we don’t have any laws,” Curry said. “Some people move into the county and tell me about their pets and others don’t, so it’s hard for me to know what animals we have – which has me concerned.”
The lack of exotic animal laws is what attracted the Loughlins to Pender County.
The couple moved from New Hanover County in 2003 because of the county ordinance that restricted them from owning their bears. “We planned on moving so we could keep our bears, but we had to do it sooner because animal control was stepping in and trying to take our bears,” Monica Loughlin said.
At the time, the couple had only Baloo and Teddy, and they were 2 months old. Howard Loughlin, 40, said they bought the cubs from the former Tote-Em-In Zoo in Wilmington – now Tregembo Animal Park – so they wouldn’t be sold to irresponsible pet owners.
“We fell in love with their mother, so when she had her cubs we wanted to buy them,” Howard Loughlin said. “I was scared of bears at first, but now I love them.”
Curry admits the Loughlins are among the responsible pet owners in Pender County. “My concern comes with people who buy these big cats and then realize later that maybe a tiger is too big for them to handle,” he said. “Then what happens to it?”
The state has a committee looking into exotic pet ownership. Committee member Lorraine Smith, curator of mammals at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, said the study may help determine a state law.
Curry said state laws regulating exotic pets would help him with his job.
“You’ve got to have a license to paint nails in this state, but any idiot can go out and buy a python,” he said. “We need these laws now.”
Monica Loughlin said a law regulating pets doesn’t scare her because she and her husband take good care of their pets. They have three large cages surrounded by an electrical fence plus surveillance cameras. They also have room to expand on their 12-acre property to compensate for the bears’ growth.
“We’ll probably be grandfathered in to any new law,” she said. “I just don’t want them to ban exotic animals because it will keep us from purchasing any other exotic pets in the future.”
But for now Monica Loughlin said her focus is on her “babies,” which are her three bears, three dogs and four African goats.
“Owning these pets is a lifelong commitment, and we’re in it for life,” she said. “We’ll be out here in our 60s still playing with these animals.”
Tyra M. Vaughn: 343-2070
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