Miami Herald Editorial: Wild animal laws need tightening

Tots and wild animals a volatile mix
OUR OPINION: LAX LAWS ON WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT DUE FOR AN OVERHAUL

Posted on Mon, Dec. 11, 2006

Putting children and wild animals together in an unsecured environment is never a good idea. Children are innocent and naturally curious. Animals, especially predators, are instinctive and unpredictable. This potent combination resulted in serious injury last month — but thankfully not worse — for a 4-year-old girl who was attacked by a cougar at a friend’s birthday party in Coral Gables.

A poor judgment call

The toddler, whose torn ear was reattached, blessedly will recover from her injuries. The cougar was later euthanized. There are after-the-fact regrets and lessons to be learned from this tragic real-life scenario, beginning with the very notion of using wild animals to entertain young children at a birthday party. That’s a judgment call — a poor one, we think — that some parents make and, with luck, are fortunate enough to see end happily in memories for a lifetime.

The greater responsibility, though, resides with the owners and handlers of the animals. Their training, skill, dedication and level of care can mean the difference between safe encounters and tragedy.

In this instance, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission can charge the woman who owned and trained the cougar with a misdemeanor offense for allowing an injury to the public. FWC also is examining whether the owner’s nonprofit firm properly cages its animals; and the county is investigating to determine if the owner has the proper permits.

These multiple investigations suggest a mind-set among authorities that stern action is needed in this case to send a message to other owners of wild animals, and to avoid a potentially worse outcome in the future. This sentiment is right, but what is needed are tougher laws that help owners understand the serious responsibility involved in owning wild animals. Florida lawmakers should raise the ante with tougher penalties and punishment, including making it a felony, for owners whose laxity results in wild animals escaping, or causing injury or death to people.

Densely populated

Court records show that the cougar’s owner was cited in the past for another attack and was also convicted for a wildlife cage violation. Lawmakers should increase the penalty for repeat offenders to a felony. For years, Florida has tolerated and even encouraged the growth of a cottage industry of exotic wildlife owned by professionals and private individuals. Occasionally, someone is mauled or killed by an escaped tiger, cougar or poisonous snake.

With 17 million people and growing, Florida has become too densely populated to continue with such lax policies regulating the management and care of wild animals. This time, tragedy was averted when a child escaped with her life. Next time, the outcome may not be so fortuitous.

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