Tiger mauling death worries B.C. exotic pet owners

Nicholas Read
Vancouver Sun
Monday, May 14, 2007

Lake Cowichan tiger owners Cody and Jamie Bell are worried that after what happened to Tania Dumstrey-Soos last week, people who keep tigers and other exotic animals in B.C. will be forced to change their ways.

The owner of the tiger that killed Dumstrey-Soos “screwed everybody over with the exotic animals, because now people are going to be freaking out and thinking they shouldn’t have them,” Cody Bell said of Dumstrey-Soos’s fiance, Kim Carlton, on Sunday.

“We’re trying to stay low because of what’s going on. But it’s not the tiger’s fault. [Dumstrey-Soos] was wearing a dress, a summer dress, and it was waving around, and you know cats like to play with things that move.”

The Bells run Primate Estates, what they describe as an exotic animal “sanctuary” five kilometres outside of Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. One of their charges is Susie, a nine-month-old, 140-kilogram Bengal tiger. She lives in an eight-metre-by-eight-metre pen in the backyard.

The Bells routinely visit her inside her cage, and Cody says he will pet her through the bars and stick his fingers in her mouth.

However, he adds, they are careful never to be alone with her.

“It takes two of us [to feed her] because she’s a big cat, and cats will attack you from behind.”

“She could eat a cow now.”

They also have 52 primates of different kinds, various reptiles, and nine other exotic cats, including servals — an African species likened to a miniature cheetah — and a caracal, a southwest Asian species described as the “desert lynx.”

Cody Bell says that at feeding time, these smaller cats are worse than Susie. “You can go in with these guys, but not at feeding.”

The Bells are worried that their sanctuary could be shut down if Agriculture Minister Pat Bell keeps a promise made last week in the wake of Dumstrey-Soos’s death to enact new legislation around exotic animals.

“My mom knows everybody who has animals,” Cody Bell says. “We just got to step up and start saying stuff and point out what they [Carlton and Dumstrey-Soos] did wrong and we’re not doing. Or we’re going to be screwed.”

Cody Bell says there are at least 12 other tigers in B.C., including the Siberian tiger that killed Dumstrey-Soos. [That animal was destroyed on the weekend.] But he couldn’t say where they are.

Action Animals, a company that supplies animals to movies and live entertainment acts, advertises live tigers, lions, jaguars and cougars on its website, but a call to Action Animals on Sunday was not returned.

None of this shocks animal-welfare groups, which have been trying unsuccessfully since the 1980s to persuade successive governments that it is cruel and dangerous to keep exotic animals as pets.

As far as back as 1983, then-Social Credit environment minister Tony Brummet said there was no need for regulations, saying accidents involving exotic animals were due to “human error.”

“So it doesn’t matter what laws you would have had,” Brummet said, “they would have probably happened because of human error.”

Environment ministers of every political stripe have been saying much the same thing ever since.

Even when Langley snake keeper Larry Moor died in 1992 from the bite of one of his cobras, nothing was done.

That’s why groups such as the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), Zoocheck Canada and the Rainforest Reptile Refuge directed their efforts to local governments instead.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that the Township of Langley, after a rancorous town-hall meeting in which local people accused councillors of taking away their rights to own livestock, passed B.C.’s first bylaw to ban the sale — though not the keeping — of some exotics.

Not that that changed much. Three years later, Maple Ridge permitted an exotic animal auction on city property at which a Japanese snow monkey was sold for $900 — its fifth home in six years — after the auctioneer declared it to be “the closest thing you’re gonna get to a real human being.”

To this day, Maple Ridge has no restrictions on selling or keeping exotics.

But other cities have slowly followed Langley’s lead. One by one, against a background of lizards, pythons and caimans falling out of apartment windows and turning up in parks, cars and other places they didn’t belong, another 20 B.C. jurisdictions started to place some restrictions on either the buying or keeping of some exotic animals.

Vancouver only got around to it this year.

Provincially, action has been slower. In 2000, after an investigation by the VHS showed that imported turtles were being butchered alive in Vancouver grocery stores, the province produced a list of some prohibited species. But the list failed to include big cats or snakes.

In 2001, Victoria said it was preparing a draft proposal on “alien” species in the province, but the proposal never materialized.

In 2003, a report published by pet retailers said the exotic trade was growing by as much as 150 per cent a year. Meanwhile, the VHS published its own report linking exotic animals with zoonotic disease. Again, no action from Victoria.

Letters in 2006 and 2007 warning the province specifically of the dangers surrounding Kim Carlton’s Siberian Magic Zoo didn’t even warrant replies.

Neither did a five-year-old girl being choked by a corn snake at a pet expo in Abbotsford this March.

“We’ve tried and tried and tried to get action on this for almost 20 years,” says VHS executive director Debra Probert, “and every time we have, nothing.”

nread@png.canwest.com

http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story. html?id=2f758756-66b5-418d-be63-f8230337e4df

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