Kaufman County, exotic animal owners tussle over registration
02:59 AM CST on Friday, February 16, 2007
By JIM GETZ / The Dallas Morning News
The Yellow Brick Road doesn’t run through Kaufman County, but the exotic animals there might make Dorothy think she’s in Oz.
NATHAN HUNSINGER/DMN Doug Terranova rubs noses with his tiger, Kismet, on his property in Kaufman County. The county is the only one in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that has chosen to register exotic creatures instead of ban them, and her catchphrase – “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” – was jokingly mentioned at a county workshop on the issue last week.
But to some observers, the “oh my!” springs from something different: Not one owner of large exotic beasts has registered a single lion, tiger, bear or cougar with the county or the state – though Texas law has required it for more than five years.
To Dallas lawyer Robert “Skip” Trimble, who consulted on the 2001 statute that requires counties to either ban “dangerous wild animals” or list them on a public registry, the message to Kaufman County is simple: “You’ve done neither. Now do it.”
Concern over the issue has grown since a tiger attack last summer on an employee at a big-cat facility north of Kaufman and rumored killings of livestock by a big cat. Now, commissioners may consider banning any future exotic animal businesses – while allowing existing ones to remain. Mr. Trimble has drafted an ordinance to that effect for commissioners to consider, possibly as early as Feb. 26.
At the Feb. 5 workshop with commissioners, owners such as Doug Terranova, Marcus Cook, Gary Holliman and James Hall said they were fine with giving the county a list of their animals. But they objected to the state requirement that they file a diagram of their facilities, for fear animal-rights activists would use it to trespass. And they said it would be redundant for a veterinarian or sheriff’s deputy to inspect animals or enclosures because the U.S. Department of Agriculture does that several times a year.
Mr. Terranova said he and other owners are not worried about Sheriff David Byrnes, who they believe would administer registration fairly. But Mr. Terranova fears a future sheriff might turn over inspection to untrained, animal-loving volunteers. Walking up to one of the tigers in a 10-foot-high enclosure on his 25 acres southwest of Kaufman, he asked, “Does she look like she’s happy? Who decides that?”
Tour Doug Terranova’s exotic animal operation
Graphic: Wild in Kaufman County (.pdf)
Mr. Terranova also despises inconsistencies in the state law. Elephants, wolves and rhinos are exempt, supposedly because of lobbying while the 2001 law was being written. He also says the law makes no distinction between a professional like him, who has a USDA license, and an amateur who keeps a tiger in his back yard like an oversized pet.
On the other hand, the law exempts organizations sanctioned by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Referring to the Jabari incident three years ago at the AZA-approved Dallas Zoo, Mr. Terranova asked, “Do you think if I had a gorilla escape from here that I’d be open today?”
County commissioners now admit that they wrongly created a committee in December 2001 to oversee registration. They did so because the county had no animal control officers, as it does today, and because the committee included Rhea Fox, then a commissioner, who had once run a wildlife sanctuary.
But in a county without animal control officers, the law says, the commissioners should have directed the sheriff to keep the registry. Sheriff Byrnes has repeatedly said it is not his job to track down owners; it’s their job to bring their lists to him.
They haven’t. Owners have cited the lack of clarity with the illegal committee, saying there was no one to give a list to.
However, an owner of three smaller cats called servals said she had no problem registering with Kaufman County and the Texas Department of State Health Services. Beth Junell, who had to move out of Combine last summer when that city banned the cats, said county animal-control agents brought the paperwork to her new home and inspected her enclosures and she paid the $50-per-animal fee.
“It was easy,” she said, adding that she has a USDA license to breed her servals, which are 20 inches high at the shoulder and weigh 30 to 40 pounds.
“It’s the people who haven’t done it who are killing us,” she said. “They make it so people want to get rid of the whole thing.”
Indeed, some Kaufman County residents have had enough.
Last May, Gary Prater had a horse and a calf attacked and killed on his pasture two miles north of Mr. Cook’s compound of exotic cats. Although there is no proof that one of Mr. Cook’s animals was to blame, rumors flew. Eric Minter, a Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife game warden, said claw and bite marks on the calf appeared to have been made by a big cat, although it could have been a native mountain lion.
And after one of Mr. Cook’s employees was mauled while doing yard work in June, Nena Langford, who has land a mile north of Mr. Cook’s, became outraged that neither he nor any other owner had registered their animals.
“I want to feel like I’m safe on my own property,” she said. “I don’t want to be worried that I’m playing with my children and around the corner is a Bengal tiger.
“And then when I found out they had passed the law and not enforced it, that made me mad. Why not push the issue?”
County Commissioner Jerry Rowden, whose precinct includes Mr. Cook’s land, felt the push. He’s called two workshops on the issue.
Mr. Rowden now believes that if the county had enforced registration all along, it would have been easy, after Mr. Prater’s calf was attacked, to check the cats in the owners’ compounds against the registry to see if one had gotten loose.
“My hope is if this happens again, we check the list against what’s there and allay these fears,” Mr. Rowden said.
Mr. Fox said the county’s population has grown to 100,000 from 70,000 in 2001.
“At that time, there were only two or three facilities in the county, and I think the sheriff thought he could control that,” he recalled.
Today, he said, he would vote for a ban, at least on new owners. “I just don’t think they have any place in any of the counties unless it’s some kind of federal reserve or something,” Mr. Fox said.
But Mr. Cook, Mr. Terranova and the others oppose a ban.
At the Feb. 5 commissioners meeting, Mr. Cook said a ban “would cut the head off to cure the headache. That’s not going to do the animals any good at all.”Mr. Rowden is leaning toward the views of the man who previously held his commissioner’s seat, Mr. Fox.
“From a county’s standpoint, it would be easiest to ban everything,” Mr. Rowden said. “But I’m hesitant to ban a business that’s been in existence for 15 years.”To Mr. Trimble, the issue remains simple.
“The only question is whether to ban future operations,” he said. “But they’ll still have to have a registration. … And then, the only question will be whether they get them to comply or not.”
Write the reporter here: JIM GETZ email@example.com
Kaufman County Officials listed here: http://capwiz.com/bigcatrescue/officials/locality/?entity_id=2992&state=TX
Thank you for covering this important issue. There is no reason to allow the breeding and exploitation of big cats in Kaufman County. Marcus Cook is a case in point. Read more here: http://bigcatrescue.org/bigcatexhibition.htm#MarcusCook and here: http://bigcatrescue.org/big_cat_news_files/2005/marcuscook.htm
Anyone who claims that their USDA license is a safeguard for the animals or the public is not being truthful. All it takes to get a USDA license is $40.00 and a one page form with name and address. No experience and rarely an inspection. Here is the form: http://bigcatrescue.org/print/USDAform.jpg There are only 90 USDA inspectors who are responsible for inspecting more than 30,000 breeders, dealers and exhibitors of wildlife.
The following is a partial listing (796) of incidents involving captive big cats since 1990. These incidents have resulted in the killing or deaths of 234 big cats, 69 human deaths, more than 243 human maulings, 214 exotic cat escapes and 363 confiscations. http://bigcatrescue.org/big_cat_news.htm
To see a video of the mauling of a zoo keeper in 2006 go to http://bigcatrescue.org/animal_contact.htm
The Journal of Internal Medicine in 2006 estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died. Read more about zoonotic diseases here:
To see the number of exotic cats abandoned each year go to http://bigcatrescue.org/animal_abuse.htm
To view a trend chart that shows the alarming escalation of big cat incidents here: http://bigcatrescue.org/Flash/BigCatBans/BigCatBanCharts.htm
The U.S. represents less than 5% of the entire global population, but 67% of ALL captive cat incidents occur in the U.S. Likewise, Florida represents less than 6% of the U.S. population while 13% of all U.S. incidents occur in Florida. California and Florida boast the most comprehensive sets of regulations allowing private ownership of exotic cats while ranking #3 and #1 respectively in the highest numbers of big cat killings, maulings and escapes. To view photos of fatal injuries from cases reported in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine click http://bigcatrescue.org/laws/AMJForensicFeline.pdf
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Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
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to more than 100 big cats
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