By Michael Gresham
An ordinance passed in December 2001 to govern possession of exotic animals in Kaufman County currently has no teeth.
On Monday, commissioners learned that a procedural error may be at fault for a lack of enforcement of county regulations concerning ownership of such animals.
“For whatever reasons, when the county approved the ordinance in 2001 it appointed a committee to enforce the regulations. The creation of that committee was not authorized by the state mandate,” attorney Skip Trimble told commissioners. “Apparently, that committee also never truly functioned and no registration of animals or enforcement of the ordinance has occurred.”
Trimble, who was on hand to discuss problems with the current ordinance, said the county created the ordinance after the state legislature approved HB 1362, which mandated all Texas counties to have some form of exotic animal regulations in place by December 2001.
“The bill created a statewide system of minimum regulations,” Trimble said. “It also amended local government code to ensure that counties and cities have the right to have stricter enforcement of the regulations.”
Trimble said the county’s current ordinance doesn’t prohibit ownership of exotic animals in Kaufman County, but does require them to be registered.
“However, no enforcement of the ordinance has been done and no registrations have been done,” Trimble said. “That being said, the county is in violation of the state’s mandate.”
Kaufman County Judge Wayne Gent said the current ordinance was drafted upon legal advice from the district attorney’s office.
“We created the committee because that is what our legal advisor, the district attorney at that time, advised us to do,” Gent said.
According to Commissioner Ken Leonard, the committee idea came about through circumstance of the time.
“When we created the board, we had a county commissioner who has experienced in dealing with dangerous animals,” Leonard said. “The board included that commissioner, a licensed veterinarian, a zoologist, a representative from the sheriff’s department and a commissioner’s court appointee. Since then, though, the commissioner is no longer around, the committee has been inactive and no one has ever been appointed to enforce the ordinance.”
Now commissioners must either find a way to enforce the ordinance or create a new one.
According to Trimble, the state has drafted its law in a way that allows the county to do whatever it wants – just as long as it is doing something.
“You can require owners to register their exotic animals. You can prohibit the ownership of such animals within the county. Or you can prohibit some and allow others. The state has left that up to the county,” Trimble said. “The only requirement the state has is that the county not allow dangerous animals and not have them registered.”
After receiving numerous calls from county residents concerned that exotic animals may not be housed properly or may be running loose, Leonard is the one who brought issue before the court.
“Several people called asking me to take action on this issue,” Leonard said. “I’m not saying we have lions, tigers and bears running free in the county, but there are a lot of people who are scared.”
One of those people is Nena Langford, who lives in the proximity of the exotic animal habitat where a tiger escaped and mauled a man earlier this year.
“It would take no time at all for one of those tigers to make it over to my land,” Langford said. “My concern is for my three children. I couldn’t imagine what it could do to one of them. I don’t want to have to call up here one day to report that one of my children has been mauled by a tiger.”
Langford pleaded with commissioners to strengthen enforcement of regulations.
“Whether its an all-out ban or regulations, all I’m asking is that it be governed correctly so that we are safe,” said Langford, adding, “I am in favor of allowing no more dangerous animals into our county.”
Kaufman County resident Gary Prater also called for more enforcement.
“I too would like to see this ordinance passed,” he said. “I’ve had a horse killed and three calves killed. The game warden said he believes a large cat did it. My problem is nobody once to take responsibility for this.”
Commissioners, who took no action on the issue Monday, will have a workshop in the coming weeks to discuss their options.
“It’s all right for people to live on the edge and own these kinds of animals,” Leonard said. “What we need to determine is if we want to force their neighbors to live on the edge of the edge.”