New proposal in Baltimore will outlaw exotic pets

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by Mary Helen Sprecher

The City of Baltimore Health Department is asking for public comment on regulations that have been proposed regarding pets. And by pets, they aren’t talking about regular old cats and dogs. In fact, the proposed regs address the keeping of exotic, farm, and other animals.

“We’ve seen a growing number of exotic pets in the city,” said Bob Anderson, director of the Municipal Animal Shelter.

The proposed regs, according to Olivia Farrow, assistant commissioner of environmental healthwere developed to help create a more definitive structure for enforcement of laws regarding the keeping of out-of-the-ordinary animals in the city.

And yes, she added, it’s something that is needed.

Last year, the city was able to pass an ordinance defining exactly what was meant by exotic or farm animals. (For the record, exotic means “any native or foreign wildlife whose possession or sale is prohibited by federal, state or local law.” Farm animals are “bovine, equine, porcine, carprine or domestic fowl.”)

The current code also requires permits for those who want to keep exotic or farm animals, as well as bees, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and pigeons. (It’s no. 10-312 in the city code, for those who want to look it up.)

The concept of exotic animals in the city might seem like a stretch, said Anderson — except that he’s had to deal with it on a routine basis.

“We’ve seen everything,” he noted.

Over the years, various animals have become “the pet of the moment,” according to Anderson. Pot-bellied pigs, chinchillas and sugar gliders (similar to a flying squirrel), as well as reptiles including iguanas and caimans (alligator-like lizards that can reach up to four feet in length) have all been found in homes inside the city limits.

“The one thing I remember the best,” said Anderson, “is that Martha Stewart said that chickens made great urban pets.”

Martha’s advice, according to Anderson, was not a good thing.

“People got chickens, and of course they got roosters, too. The roosters would be crowing all the time. It was noisy, it was messy.”

And it most certainly did not sit well with the neighbors.

In response to citizen complaints about unsanitary conditions and noise, and to the Health Department’s concern about the potential for infectious diseases, the proposed regs will take the city code one step further, expressly prohibiting any of those wild or exotic animals and their hybrid offspring. It spells out exactly what is prohibited. (See side bar for an exact listing).

In addition, the proposed regs set down much more strict rules regarding the keeping of some pets. One example – which has the potential to impact those in row house neighborhoods – would be the new regulations dealing with pigeons.

Pigeons, according to Anderson, can be a sensitive issue, since for years it was commonplace for individuals to keep pigeon coops on their rooftops or in their back yards, and to competitively race pigeons with their friends, and even in clubs. These days, however, it’s just as likely that the next door neighbors won’t welcome the idea of a pigeon coop a few yards away from their roof deck or on the other side of their back yard fence.

“There’s a large number of people keeping pigeons in the city, and a large number of people complaining about pigeon droppings on their property,” he said.

The proposed regulations set a limit of 50 pigeons per person, and require individuals to not only have a permit for the pigeons themselves but to comply with all zoning and building regulations (including getting permits in order to build or have a pigeon coop). The coop has to be of a certain size (with at least one square foot per pigeon over the age of 1 month) and be constructed according to specific humane standards. It also has to be kept in a clean enough to prevent disease, odor, insect and rodent breeding. Pigeon food must be stored away from rodents.

Then there are the regulations that have been proposed for the pigeons themselves. The pigeons must stay in the coop unless they are out for supervised exercise, and the owner may not allow pigeons to perch or linger on the property or buildings of others.

“We can do an annual review (of pigeon keepers’ premises) depending on complaints,” said Anderson. “If we find out a person now has 150 pigeons, that they’re being kept in an unsanitary way, we can pull their permit and take the pigeons. It just gives us a little more leverage.”

There are proposed regulations for the keeping of chickens as well as Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. All three require permits costing $80 per animal. (Zoos and licensed exotic animal sanctuaries are exempt from the proposed regulations).

Comments on all proposed regulations are being accepted through Friday, March 2. According to Olivia Farrow, the Health Department “is open to suggestions. We’ll take all comments and re-evaluate as necessary.”

Exotic and unusual pets are often acquired for the wrong reasons, say officials. Sometimes, it is because the animal is trendy, or because the person is seeking attention (and a regular dog or cat or parakeet just isn’t flashy enough). Sometimes, animals are acquired by those who have good intentions, but no knowledge of what it actually takes to care for that animal, or of what it costs. Veterinary care for exotic pets is harder to find and consequently, can be more expensive. Finding pet-sitters can be more difficult as well.

As a result, many owners lose interest and start looking for ways to offload their animals.

“We do get phone calls and e-mails from time to time asking if we can take in exotic pets that people can no longer care for,” said Lainie Contreras, public information officer with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. “Unfortunately, we are unable to take in such pets as we generally do not handle animals that have been domesticated. Instead, we recommend that people contact a rescue organization that does accept unwanted exotic animals. A lot of people will buy an exotic pet without realizing that the animal requires a great deal of specialized care.”

Exotic pets are often released into the wild where they either die, or in the case of the Northern Snakehead, thrive to the extent that they pose a hazard to local species.

Owners who feel more responsibility toward exotic pets will surrender their animals to shelters and sanctuaries, where individuals like Colleen Layton of Frisky’s Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary in Woodstock, Md. are licensed to care for them.

Layton, who reviewed the Health Department’s proposed regulations, approves of the stricter measures.

“I really do think it’s a good thing,” she said. “Animals should be accounted for, and people should be held accountable. It’s a life you’re dealing with.”

Over the years, Layton has taken in monkeys, a prairie dog, a coatimundi, a flying squirrel, lizards, turtles, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and many other displaced animals.

“People tend to get animals, and they don’t have species-specific experience. They don’t know anything about the animal, really, and then all of a sudden they find out it’s a lot more trouble than they thought and they can’t care for it anymore.”

Frisky’s does not adopt out exotic animals; those remain on the sanctuary premises throughout their natural lives. The facility also rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife and releases it once it can survive on its own. It also takes in pet birds, such as parakeets and cockatiels, and finds new homes for them.

There are signs that at least within the city limits, the trend in pet ownership may be changing. Eddie Sachs at The Coral Reef Pet Store on Eastern Avenue said that his business is seeing less of a demand for out-of-the-ordinary animals.

“People just aren’t into the exotics as much as they used to be,” he noted. “It’s petered out. Years ago, people were wanting caimans, now you just don’t see those around.”

Note: To review the proposed regulations, go to Comments can be mailed to Olivia Farrow, Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Health, 210 Guilford Avenue, second floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, or e-mailed to Deadline for all comments to be received is March 2.

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