La.’s new law prompts anxiety at big cat facility

By Vickie Welborn
vwelborn@gannett.com
March 31, 2007

FRIERSON — A state law passed last year regulating the importation and private ownership of big exotic cats has prompted some anxiety of late at Yogie and Friends Exotic Cat Sanctuary.

Owners of the Frierson sanctuary only recently learned of the proposed rules and regulations. Vice President Jenny Senier and President Tim Mills know they will have to go through a permitting process that will cause them to strive for greater improvements at the sanctuary, which provides a haven for big cats that have been rescued from abusive situations.

“We have no problem with the law whatsoever. It’s a positive thing by putting a ban on private ownership of big cats and on these situations where you take photographs with cubs. We’re glad about that. It’s also going to put the pressure on us to tighten up, too,” Senier said.

“We were just worried the law was putting us in the same category with privately owned pet owners and that would not allow us to open to the public for educational tours and visits. If we could not open, then I don’t think the public would have supported us with our fundraisers.”

The intent of the law, signed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Aug. 15, is for public safety and the animals’ health, said Marie Davidson, of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department’s fur and refuge division in Baton Rouge. Too often, many of the stories grabbing headlines are of people being maimed or killed by being allowed to get too close to big cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cougars and cheetahs.

No longer will traveling petting zoos or even circuses be able to set up photo opportunities with exotic cats. “That’s illegal now. “» It’s just not a good practice,” Davidson said.

Yogie and Friends opened to the public in May 2000 and hasn’t had any incidents involving the public or animal escapes. That’s attributed to the fact that its six lions, seven tigers, two cougars, black leopard, bobcat and three African servals are kept in steel chain-link enclosures surrounded by a perimeter of additional fencing that prohibits the public from touching them. The big cats only leave the sanctuary when a medical condition cannot be addressed on site.

“We realize we are not the esthetically fancy place most people expect, but we are a rescue and you can certainly tell the animals are well cared for,” Senier said.

The law — the guidelines of which have been recently published in a formal notice of intent the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission will adopt in the coming months — includes various exemptions. For example, zoos accredited or certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, facilities such as Chimp Haven in Keithville and colleges and universities with exotic cats as mascots are exempt.

Some of the confusion with the new law popped up when Senier read the guidelines governing animal sanctuaries. The law states sanctuaries certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association cannot exhibit their animals. And while Yogie and Friends classifies itself as a sanctuary, it is not certified by the association. That’s a goal Senier and Mills will pursue once the association lifts its moratorium on new applications.

Yogie and Friends can still apply to Wildlife and Fisheries for a non-American Zoo and Aquarium Association permit, Davidson said, meaning it can remain open to the public. However, Senier, Mills and Yogie and Friends’ board of directors still must pass muster with the application process, which Davidson describes as “extensive.”

Information such as nonprofit status, the board, the strategic plan, staff and training and plans for the future care of the big cats should Senier and Mills die or cease to be involved with Yogie and Friends will be required, as well as an on-site inspection.

Yogie and Friends is licensed by the Wildlife and Fisheries for its cougar and bobcat and is inspected annually by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Senier hopes Yogie and Friends can eventually attain the high standards of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Corrine S. Brown, a veterinarian and researcher who co-founded the Grand Cane-based Wild Waterbird Conservancy, and the director of the Alexandria Zoo have offered their assistance.

“All of this has happened at a time when we’re finally getting recognition and more public support,” Senier said.

http://www.shreveporttimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ article?AID=/20070331/NEWS01/ 703310333/1002/NEWS

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