When 44 tigers and 11 lions live in a neighborhood, you might expect neighbors to be concerned. When there are no government safety inspections of such menageries, you might expect a community to be worried. And when tigers attack people — as happened twice this month in Missouri — it’s time for the government to step in.
Missouri needs a state law requiring humane conditions and regular inspections of private reserves housing wild predators. Without it, citizens won’t be safe, and animals won’t be ensured of humane treatment.
Oddly enough, one reason the state doesn’t do a good job of regulating large animals may be that some people who raise small, cuddly ones — puppies and kittens — are opposed to animal regulation of any sort. The distance between a puppy mill and a tiger preserve isn’t all that great.
On Aug. 3, an 800-pound tiger jumped a fence and attacked a 26-year-old volunteer at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya refuge near Warrenton. The tiger was shot dead; the victim’s leg later was amputated below the knee.
A day later, three tigers critically injured a 16-year old boy at Predator World near Branson. The teenage employee had entered the tiger enclosure to take a picture.
That wasn’t the first problem at Predator World. A 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture report noted that a grizzly bear previously had escaped its enclosure and killed a tiger.
The Wesa-A-Geh-Ya operation is even more worrisome. It is home to 44 tigers, 11 lions, seven Arctic wolves and other exotic animals, most of them kept in chain-link cages. In 2003, the operation surrendered its USDA license to exhibit the animals after a USDA investigation into the lack of medical treatment for a sick lion and a bear. The operation’s owners also have been cited for failing to lock cages properly.
Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison is concerned. “We’re dealing with a volunteer organization holding large numbers of wild animals in cages that, for all practical purposes, were designed to hold dogs,” he told Post-Dispatch columnist Susan Weich. “What happens if they get out, and they’re roaming our community?”
Since surrendering its license, Wesa-A-Geh-Ya has survived in a regulatory loophole. The USDA no longer inspects the facility because it’s not open to the public. Missouri law only requires owners of dangerous predators to tell law enforcement authorities they have one. That’s about it.
And even the notification law is ignored widely. A survey last year by law students at St. Louis University found that only one sheriff’s office in the state keeps such records.
The bottom line: An owner can fill his property with the world’s most dangerous predators, and the government will look the other way.
The situation is absurd, but Missouri long has been known for lax regulation of animal operations. For instance, state law says that dog breeding operations must be inspected once a year. But in 2006, the state Agriculture Department managed to inspect only 60 percent of the registered operations, according to a July report by the state auditor. And no one knows how many breeders are unregistered.
Ineffective as the puppy mill law is, at least it’s on the books. State law says nothing at all about much fiercer creatures. State Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and Rep. Mike Sutherland, R-Warrenton, this year proposed a mild tightening of the registration requirement for exotic animal operators. The bill went nowhere, suggesting a possible slogan for the state Tourism Department:
“If you think Missouri’s puppy mills are bad, wait’ll you see our tiger mills.”
(Photo of a caged tiger by Tambako the Jaguar)