N.C.: Who should keep exotic animals?

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By Jim Nesbitt, Staff Writer

For Gray Rushin, the boyhood chase of all things creepy and crawly quickly narrowed to the cold-blooded slither of a snake.

His parents bought him a boa constrictor when he was 7. Rushin was captivated by the calm, dead-eyed stare of an alien animal; the unhurried power of its lethal muscles; and the cool, dry feel of its scaly skin.

Now 42, the Cary Academy chemistry teacher is still enthralled by a creature that generates fear and revulsion in others. He has slowly evolved from serious hobbyist and faculty adviser for the school’s reptile club to successful breeder with a global clientele and more than 100 boas in his southern Wake County home.

“Snakes just got a hold of me,” Rushin said. “They’re so adaptable and so successful for an animal that doesn’t have any legs, arms or hands. They’re cold-blooded — so very different from us.”

For the past six months, Rushin has found himself on the front lines of a fierce political battle over a state Senate bill that would slap a statewide ban on the private ownership of a broad range of exotic animals deemed an inherently dangerous threat to public safety or health.

This legislative firefight raises a contentious question: Who should be allowed to keep an exotic animal in North Carolina, be it a lion, tiger, cobra, Gibbon ape, Capuchin monkey, timber wolf, crocodile or boa constrictor?

There are corollary queries: What’s the best way for North Carolina to address the health or safety threat from an exotic animal that is deemed dangerous? Should the state ban private ownership or set up a system of permits and regulations that professionals and private citizens can meet? North Carolina is one of nine states without a statewide ban or a permit system for exotic animals.

This struggle unleashes the strong passions and deeply held beliefs common to many thorny issues. On one side are animal-rights activists; a veteran Triangle animal control officer; and officials at the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources– proponents of the ban. Arrayed against them are the state’s pork and poultry industry; officials at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; exotic animal hobbyists like Rushin; and owners of small, private zoos.

There’s also a bitter dispute over how much of a public safety threat exotic animals pose. The origins of the proposed ban can be traced to the 2003 death of Wilkes County fourth-grader C.J. Eller, who was mauled by a tiger kept at his aunt’s home.

While tragic, such attacks are rare, opponents of the ban say, noting that people face a greater likelihood of death or injury from horses, cattle, dogs, car wrecks or lightning. They also say the proposed ban goes far beyond outlawing “backyard” tigers, lions and bears — a measure they favor — to advance a broader prohibition pushed by the Animal Protection Institute, a California-based animal rights organization.

In its original form, the bill would have required privately owned zoos to meet the same standards as the state zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Those that could not would be forced out of business under a clause prohibiting existing owners from replacing aging or ailing animals. In a revision offered during a Senate committee hearing last week, the bill would also exempt zoos and other animal exhibition facilities that hold the most stringent license offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But this new exemption also requires owners to carry $2 million in liability insurance and includes other rules that smaller operators consider an unfair burden.

On public safety

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Ed Jones, a Halifax County Democrat, said his legislation would help eliminate a threat to public health and safety. It would also prevent North Carolina from becoming a haven for exotic pet owners fleeing states that already ban or regulate such animals. But the chairman of the committee considering the bill, state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr., said most members think the bill still goes too far. He has asked a subcommittee to hammer out further revisions.

“Nobody really demonstrated a preponderance of evidence that shows a need for this legislation,” said state Sen. Eddie Goodall, a Union County Republican and member of the subcommittee. “There are certainly a few deaths that are tragic, but we live in an imperfect world.”

A ban is best, said John Sauls, Chatham County animal control manager and a member of a legislative study committee that considered the issue. A veteran of animal control posts in Orange and Wake counties and leader of a statewide task force against dogfighting, Sauls takes this position for both professional and personal reasons.

As a pro, he says permits and regulations on exotic animals would be cumbersome and would overwhelm overworked animal control officers charged with enforcing them.

“It’s a whole lot easier for animal control agencies to enforce a blanket prohibition than it is to judge the fine lines of each situation — and you eliminate the public safety and health issue altogether,” Sauls said.

On a personal level, he thinks wild animals, both home-grown and exotic, belong in their natural habitats, not in cages.

“When you take an animal out of its environment, you don’t have nothing left,” he said. “It’s just an ornament. And it’s an ornament to the vanity of human beings.”

David Jones, director of the N.C. Zoological Park and chairman of the legislative study committee on exotic animals, also supports a broad-based ban.

In two recent interviews, Jones, a veteran zoo official with experience revising zoo standards in Europe, also made it clear he thinks the best keepers of exotic animals are top-flight professionals operating under high standards of housing, care and training.

Jones said it’s in the economic self-interest of small, private zoos to adopt stricter standards. He dismisses as inadequate the requirements of a USDA license for animal exhibitors and standards set by professional organizations other than the AZA.

“Public opinion is going to demand, and people are going to be ashamed of, animal collections that don’t come up to standards accepted elsewhere,” Jones said.

Jones also draws a line between API’s membership on the study committee and its move to introduce legislation before the committee handed in its final report.

“We here at the zoo entirely support the principles of what they’ve put in (the bill), but they are essentially two separate exercises,” he said. “As a state entity, we have not pushed in any sense the API approach.”

Small-zoo opposition

Opponents say Jones and API have worked in close concert. The zoo director’s stance on accreditation strikes Dora Turner, owner of Noah’s Landing, a small, nonprofit, educational zoo in Harnett County, as elitist and un-American.

“Do I think everyone needs a monkey? No. Do I think everyone needs a tiger? No,” said Turner, a former teacher who used to raise llamas. “But there are people who are capable of taking care of these animals and should be allowed to do so if you put regulations in place and if they follow the rules.”

Turner keeps two types of animals listed in the bill on her 12-acre compound — timber wolves and monkeys. Her USDA-licensed zoo specializes in guided tours for children and features a zebra; kinkajous, a South American relative of the raccoon; and a capybara, the world’s largest rodent.

“You don’t do this to make money,” she said. “You do it because you love animals and want to educate people about them.”

Dan Breeding, a college-educated exotic animal trainer who puts on traveling animal programs at schools, churches, television shows and theme parks such as Sea World and Busch Gardens, says the proposed ban would force him to leave North Carolina.

Three years ago, he and his wife, who is also an animal trainer, moved from Florida to a 25-acre compound near Wake Forest where they keep an alligator, a Gibbon ape, giant lizards and pythons, vultures, parrots, and other exotic animals used in his shows.

Breeding, who holds permits and licenses from the USDA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a bevy of state agencies, doesn’t keep lions or tigers on his fenced-in compound. With his experience, training and commitment, he thinks he’s just as qualified as a keeper at an AZA-accredited zoo or a scientist studying animals in the wild.

“I’m not pushing exotic animals as pets,” said Breeding, 36, who handles animals during television appearances with Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. “I’m pushing the American way, the ability to pursue my profession and livelihood.”

Rushin, the Cary Academy chemistry teacher, would rather work on his computer or plop down on a couch to watch a home movie — with a boa or two crawling across his shoulders. But the initial threat of a ban on giant pythons, boas and poisonous exotic snakes forced him and his reptile allies to take a crash course on political lobbying.

They have won a partial victory. Snakes have been struck from the ban, but crocodiles, alligators and poisonous lizards like the Gila monster are still listed. As an alternative, they have drafted a lengthy set of regulations for keeping their favorite animals.

So far, their suggestions have generated little interest among bill sponsors, and Rushin worries that snakes may get slipped back into the ban. Hartsell hopes to hold another hearing this week.

“Unfortunately, with reptiles, there’s an ingrained fear that’s really easy to tap into,” Rushin said. “You can get people really riled if you tell them there’s a snake loose in their neighborhood.”

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at (919) 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.


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