Talk of ban stirs NC exotic animal owners

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Owners of once-wild pets band to fight proposed regulations

Jim Nesbitt, Staff Writer

RALEIGH – The tempest caused by a proposed ban on exotic and dangerous beasts has whipped up a guerrilla network of animal lovers who don’t want their favorite creatures outlawed.

People running small, private zoos and sanctuaries have attacked members of a legislative study group who want to ban individual ownership of a list of risky critters — from lions and tigers to anacondas and apes — and to restrict people and institutions allowed to keep them.

Joined by reptile hobbyists who fear their snakes or lizards will be taboo, these critics claim radical animal rights activists have hijacked the study group. Watching warily, representatives of North Carolina’s pork and poultry interests worry their animals might be the next targets.

This nascent resistance movement has quickly learned the art of infighting, forming an alphabet soup of organizations — the N.C. Association of Reptile Keepers, or NCARK; the N.C. Exotic Animal Keepers, NCEAK — and lighting up e-mail lists and Web sites.

“Basically, we got together because we were getting our butts kicked by this study group,” said Doug Evans, co-founder of the Conservators’ Center, a sanctuary for big cats and other exotic animals near Mebane.

They’ve aimed their most thunderous assault at the two top officials from the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro and animal rights activists who are voting members of the group. This includes a staff member of the Animal Protection Institute, a California-based organization zoo officials tapped to provide draft legislation and advice on an “inherently dangerous animal” ban.

“We want these lunatics to go back to California and console themselves over granola and leave the wildlife professionals of North Carolina alone,” said Tanith Tyrr, reptile curator at the Cape Fear Serpentarium, a privately owned indoor zoo in Wilmington which also maintains the state’s only anti-venom bank for cobras and other deadly, exotic snakes.

Dr. David Jones, director of the state zoo and a leading member of the study group, says blasts such as Tyrr’s mask the need for a state law prohibiting or restricting private ownership of exotic animals. North Carolina is one of 11 states that don’t ban or regulate such animals, zoo officials say, though about two dozen counties and towns have their own ordinances, including Durham, Orange and Johnston counties and Cary.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fear of the unknown here that isn’t justified,” said Jones, former chief of the London Zoo and a veteran of international wildlife and zoological organizations. “They’re paranoid on this.”

Death triggered action

Jones and the zoo’s mammal curator, Lorraine Smith, started their campaign after the 2003 death of a 10-year-old Wilkes County boy killed by Tigger, a tiger his aunt kept in the yard. That attack was underscored by the 2004 mauling of a 14-year-old Surry County girl by one of four tigers her family kept on a farm near Lowgap.

Jones said zoo officials were also motivated by an increase in calls from animal control officers and other officials about exotic pets escaping from backyard pens or indoor cages and terrariums.

This broadened the scope of the study group beyond tigers or lions kept as private pets. Wolves, crocodiles, cobras, monkeys, pythons and dozens of other non-indigenous species have been considered for the dangerous animals list. Any exotic deemed capable of killing people, causing serious injury or infecting them is a potential candidate for a ban on private ownership.

Headed by officials of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the study group also includes veterinarians from two state agencies, the owner of a small family-run zoo in Wilmington and a reptile hobbyist. Leaders are scrambling to complete a report that was supposed to be finished by the beginning of the legislative session but may be delayed several more weeks.

Charismatic megafauna

This has turned a low-profile study group into a battlefront.

Tyrr and other critics claim animal rights organizations are preying on a primeval fear of what some wildlife biologists call “charismatic megafauna” — big cats and other toothy carnivores.

But more people are killed by horses, cattle, bees, deer and dogs each year than tigers or other exotic animals, the critics say. They warn that by hyping the fear animal rights activists hope to gain a toehold in North Carolina and eventually target medical research institutions and the state’s hog and poultry industries.

“It’s a paper tiger, pardon the pun,” said Andrew Wyatt, president of the newly formed N.C. Association of Reptile Keepers and a voting member of the study group. “This will give them a platform to go after their higher priority targets.”

Jones, though, said domestic animals aren’t being considered. And research institutions such the Duke University Primate Center would be exempt from any exotic animal ban. So would circuses and rodeos.

Representatives of the state’s agriculture industry remain wary.

“Animal rights groups are always trying to get their foot in the door,” said Bob Ford, executive director of the N.C. Poultry Federation.

And some state officials worry the study group has wandered far afield.

“Is the action and the amount of banning and regulating justifiable by the actual need for doing it?” asked group member Dr. David Marshall, the state’s veterinarian and an employee of the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “You could argue that honey bees and wasps kill or injure more people than the animals that will be banned.”

Instead of a ban, Dr. Dan Johnson of Raleigh, a group member and exotic animal veterinarian, favors more narrowly focused actions against proven dangers, such as banning individually owned big cats or requiring permits to keep cobras or crocodiles.

Sterilizing tigers

Some sanctuary owners say a ban would put them out of business and might require the killing of an estimated 150 privately owned big cats in North Carolina. Evans, the co-founder of a sanctuary near Mebane, said the proposed ban requires sanctuaries to sterilize their animals. That would prohibit him from breeding nine big cats undergoing DNA testing to see if they’re Asian lions, which are down to a few hundred animals in the wild.

“This is real conservation work,” Evans said. “Sterilizing these guys would be a total disaster.”

Critics also claim small, private zoos can’t afford a key requirement for exemption from the ban — membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, whose membership includes the state zoo and three state-sponsored aquariums.

Proposed restrictions on breeding would also make it tougher for smaller zoos, already regulated and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to replace aging showcase animals.

“All you’ll wind up with is empty cages,” said Sherry Tregembo, whose family opened the Tregembo Animal Park in Wilmington in 1952. “Pretty soon, you’re out of business.”

Jones said he has no interest in shutting down smaller competitors, but does want statewide standards for animal care in zoos and sanctuaries tougher than those provided by existing federal and state wildlife laws.

Jones signaled a willingness to soften the provision that all zoos belong to the AZA. He’s also asked groups representing private zoos and reptile hobbyists to draft statewide standards they would enforce themselves.

Jones warns the absence of statewide regulation heightens the likelihood North Carolina will attract people fleeing states that outlaw exotic pets.

“If we don’t have some sort of statewide standard, you’re going to see a lot of animal refugees coming into North Carolina,” he said.

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at 829-8955 or

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