MD poised to join exotic pets ban
By Kristen Wyatt
Associated Press Writer
ANNAPOLIS — Thinking about getting a wolf or a little monkey to keep as an unusual pet? You have about a month left to legally acquire exotic pets such as those under a bill awaiting the governor’s signature.
In the 2006 session that ended earlier this month, the General Assembly passed the legislation that would outlaw exotic pets, including wolves, primates and big cats. Lawmakers debated such a pet ban for more than a year. Amid opposition arguments that the ban could hurt responsible animal owners, the final version includes some additional exemptions.
If the governor signs the bill, Maryland would join a growing list of states with exotic pet bans pushed by the Humane Society of the United States.
"There’s almost no one out there who can keep on these exotics as pets and care for them the way they need to be cared for," said Julie Janovsky, a Washington-based legislative specialist for the HSUS.
Janovsky said about 20 states make it illegal to keep large cats as pets, but Maryland’s ban goes further. Pet monkeys would be outlawed, except in rare cases where they’re used to assist handicapped people. The ban also includes wolves or any wolf-dog mix. Also on Maryland’s banned list is the caiman, an American crocodile that resembles an alligator.
Maryland already considers bears, raccoons, foxes and skunks off-limits as pets. Pets on the new list owned before May 31 would be exempt from the ban, though owners would have to notify animal control officials about their pets by August. They’ll be asked to submit photos or descriptions of the animals so they can prove they had them before the ban takes effect in October. Violators would be fined $1,000.
The ban would not apply to licensed animal exhibitors, wildlife refuges or veterinarians. For pet owners who already have the banned animals, they won’t be allowed to breed the animals even if their pets are grandfathered in.
Janovsky said exotic bans are getting attention nationwide because of fears of disease and cases of injuries from animals. Earlier this month, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a big cat ban inspired by the 2005 death of Haley Hilderbrand, a high school student killed by a Siberian tiger she posed next to for a school photo.
The sponsor of Maryland’s ban, Delegate Pauline Menes, said she didn’t know of any Maryland deaths caused by wild pets, but she feared it could happen.
"No one really expects to encounter these types of animals except in a zoo, somewhere professionals are trained to handle them," said Menes, D-Anne Arundel County. "It’s dangerous to the community and the animal."
Jim Rapp, director of the Salisbury Zoological Park, has seen firsthand what happens when people take nondomestic animals into their homes as pets. Rapp said that people sometimes think that if an exotic pet gets too hard to handle, they can simply drop it off at a zoo. Not true, he said.
Rapp pointed to spider monkeys in his zoo, which grow only to about 20 pounds but can be fierce biters.
"They look like little people, like having a little baby in the house," Rapp said. "But when they mature, they get really nasty. And like a lot of these other exotics, there’s nowhere you can take them."
Rapp and Janovsky blame part of the problem on television and the Internet. People see trained monkeys on TV and believe they can train a monkey to behave the same way. And the Internet makes it possible to buy wild animals from unscrupulous breeders who may not be licensed where the interested owner lives.
"People see a little monkey, they think, ‘It’s always going to sit on my lap, it’s going to hang out and watch TV with me,’ " Rapp said.
The new bill clarifies how unlawful pets would be seized. Opponents were concerned that authorities could take a pet without knowing exactly what the animal was. The final version allows any officer to seize a pet, but authorities would have to post notice that they’ve seized the animal and allow the owner to request a hearing to prove it doesn’t violate the pet ban. If an animal is seized in error, the government would have to pay for its care until it is returned.
Still, not everyone liked the bill. Delegate Rick Weldon, a Republican who represents parts of Frederick and Washington counties, voted against the measure. He said that independent, rural roadside zoos shouldn’t be forced to get permission from the state to have animals.
Though small zoos are becoming rare, he said it would hurt rural residents if any more of them closed. Major zoos such as the ones in Baltimore and Washington are too far for some people to access.
"It’s a major investment to get there" from western Maryland, said Weldon, who added he had no problem with a ban on individuals having wild pets.
Others thought the pet question should be left up to locals.
"I’m sure that county regulations and DNR (state Department of Natural Resources) regulations could take care of it, so it didn’t make sense to have one more law on the books," said Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel County.
Rapp, whose zoo takes care of a young alligator that was turned over to it by the state, said the law would send a good message that cats and dogs — not tigers and wolves — are the kinds of animals suitable as companions.
"If you want a pet, there’s pets out there that need homes," he said.
Originally published May 1, 2006
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