Tiger warning ignored: B.C. SPCA

An official says the government and RCMP were cautioned about zoo where woman was fatally mauled

Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, May 12, 2007

VICTORIA — Government officials and the RCMP were warned repeatedly for almost two years that a menagerie of tigers and lions at the Siberian Magic private zoo posed a serious danger to the public, the SPCA said Friday.

But despite the warnings and the poor conditions of the animals, no action was taken that might have prevented the death Thursday of Tania Dumstrey-Soos, 32. She was mauled by one of the tigers she was caring for in the private zoo near 100 Mile House.

“This is an absolute tragedy that could and should have been prevented,” said Marcie Moriarty, who heads investigations for the SPCA into cruelty to animals.

“We were made aware of the dangers in 2005. We served five violations-of-animal-welfare orders, the last in January 2007. We informed the regional district, the RCMP and [provincial] conservation officers.”

B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner was also given a written warning more than a year ago about the dangers at the Siberian Magic zoo. He also was told its operator, Kim Carlton, was taking his tigers to malls and did not have suitable cages to prevent escapes.

“This is in our opinion a disaster waiting to happen,” said a Dec. 1, 2006 letter from the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), which was accompanied by video footage.

Humane society spokesman Peter Fricker said there was no response from the minister. Penner also was not available Friday for comment. Nor would the RCMP comment on the case.

However, after resisting years of lobbying from the SPCA and VHS to regulate the booming exotic animal industry, Thursday’s death has prompted the provincial government to consider taking action.

Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the rise of exotic animals in captivity is an emerging phenomenon that was left to regional districts to manage. He said he will be meeting with Penner next week to review the mauling and consider if province-wide regulations should be created.

“Clearly we’ve had a tragic incident,” said Bell. “We want to deal with it as quickly as we possibly can.”

Aside from the poor living conditions of the Siberian Magic zoo’s tigers — one of which had to have its tail amputated after an injury — the SPCA’s Moriarty said authorities were made aware of the serious threat to the public.

“These cats were housed in 12-foot-by-12-foot pens made of chain-link fence, with a simple padlock,” she said. “He admitted that he walked tigers on a leash, that his kids fed them, that he took the tigers out and let members of the public take pictures with the tigers. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.”

But why did it?

The reality is that this year, after almost 20 years of urging from the SPCA and VHS, the B.C. provincial government has finally begun reviewing its Wildlife Act with an eye to outlawing such menageries that contain tigers, lions, crocodiles, poisonous snakes and perhaps even elephants.

A permit is only needed to keep an indigenous species in captivity, such as wolves or bears or moose. Exotic pets are left unregulated by the province.

For the most part, the tricky job of regulating exotic animals has been left to cities, which also have been slow to act. In many jurisdictions it is still permissible to have a tiger in your backyard, at least until the neighbourhood revolts.

But that is changing. The City of Vancouver — which has seen recent cases including a sharp-toothed cayman dropping off a balcony in Kitsilano — passed a bylaw in February that bans keeping most exotic animals as pets or selling them.

The SPCA and VHS have spent almost two decades trying to get such a law introduced on a province-wide basis.

The SPCA, which finds itself underfunded, is limited in what it can do to police exotic animals. Under current animal-welfare laws it may seize an animal only when it is proven the animal is being denied food, water or medical care, or is being beaten, said Fricker.

As well, there’s the difficult problem of what to do with a 350-lb. tiger that needs a better home. The SPCA spent thousands of dollars trying to find new lodging for the tigers at the Siberian Magic zoo, even asking the Calgary Zoo to adopt them. It found no takers.

“There are just so many tigers in captivity already nobody has space,” said Moriarty.

Most people don’t know it, but while tigers grow rarer in the jungles of Asia, North America is actually awash in them. Tigers are one of the favourite animals of the exotic-animal industry which has emerged as a $1-billion worldwide business.

While it is almost impossible to bring exotic animals across the Canadian border today because of international treaties that protect endangered wildlife, it’s actually not difficult to buy a creature of the world’s jungles. That is because many of the animals were brought in before such restrictions and have been bred in captivity.

Large cats, such as tigers, have proven to be easier than most to breed. Tigers and lions can be bought for a few hundred dollars as adorable cubs. In the United States it is estimated that there are now more than 10,000 tigers and lions kept by private individuals and private zoos. Nobody knows how many tigers are kept in B.C., but the SPCA estimates there are likely more than a dozen.

mcernetig@png.canwest.com

http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html? id=ba866322-cbe7-460c-a39f-34f9f1071fa4&k=24473

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