BY JENNIFER WILSON
Tigers and elephants aren’t typical Muskoka wildlife but that doesn’t mean Huntsville isn’t home to its lion’s share of exotic animals.
According to a recommended exotic pets bylaw, which was presented to council in October, the issue of local residents adopting exotic creatures as pets is no laughing matter.
“There is the misconceptionthat this [housing exotic pets] isn’t a real or important issue in this area,” said Huntsville’s director of physical services Sara Brown, who noted that the report was prepared after the Town learned of one resident who is currently housing two exotic animals. “But the truth of the matter is that this does happen and it is important that we, the Town of Huntsville, address it.”
The proposed bylaw would make it illegal for residents to keep exotic creatures as pets. The Town, like the municipalities of Bracebridge and Gravenhurst, who already have similar bylaws in place, has proposed a working partnership with area professionals in order to apprehend and impound the creatures. Currently, the Town has no legal capacity to take action against residents housing exotic animals.
“Most municipalities don’t know that it [dealing with exotic pets] is their jurisdiction so when we [the Muskoka Wildlife Centre] moved up here we vowed to get municipalities involved and interested,” said Jody Gienow, director for the Muskoka Wildlife Centre.
Since the onus is on municipalities and not the province to create exotic pet bylaws, there are several areas in Ontario where the action is legal. This, noted Gienow, has motivated “exotic animal collectors” to move into these areas.
“It is a very serious problem. These people will actually move specifically so they can keep their collections of inappropriate animals,” said Gienow, who noted that collecting exotic pets has become an underground trend with a large number of followers. “They [animal hoarders] are very well connected. It is like any hobby group. People who collect antique cars like to show off their antique cars to other like-minded people. It’s the same for people who collect exotic creatures. They often have their friends over to show off their exotic pet collections.”
Gienow noted that she believes most people are attracted to “animal hoarding or collecting” for the status it grants amongst like-minded persons.
“There are lots of responsible pit bull owners, but there is that group of people that put the spiked collars on the dogs and train the dogs to attack other dogs. That seems to create a social group of those types of people. Much like that there is a type of person that likes to walk around town with a snake around their shoulders or invite their friends over to see their cougar in the basement. With the more dangerous animals, it is status. It is much like having an attack dog to show off.”
Over the years, Gienow has helped apprehend hundreds of exotic animals. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the animals’ health has deteriorated as a result of poor and unnatural living conditions, noted the wildlife centre director.
“Animals in these situations, from our experience, are never housed appropriately. They are never fed appropriate diets because the expertise isn’t there in the private ownership circle,” said Gienow. As a result of improper captivity, noted Gienow, animals often suffer from obesity, malnutrition, allergies and shortened life spans.
According to the Town’s recommended bylaw, which has not been officially confirmed with the wildlife centre, the employees of the wildlife centre would be appointed as pound keepers and animal control officers, the same duties the centre performs for the municipalities of Bracebridge and Gravenhurst.
A similar exotic pets bylaw was brought to council several years ago but was left on the back burner.
“I think it fell off the radar. It didn’t seem prevalent at the time, but now the problem has a face,” said Brown. “I think this issue [the recognition of the housing of exotic creatures in Huntsville] has just pushed it ahead. It is something that we need to address and get a plan in place in order to deal with incidents like these. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t feel great having an elephant living next door to me.”
The reluctance of municipalities to take exotic pets bylaws seriously is frustrating, particularly when the animals suffer as a result, noted Gienow.
“It is very taxing when you are invested in the welfare of animals and you have to see this over and over again just because there isn’t proper legislation,” said Gienow.
Huntsville, noted Gienow, shouldn’t have needed a “face” to push forward an exotic pets bylaw. With “animal hoarders” moving to areas where it is legal to keep exotic creatures as pets, the implementation of a bylaw can prevent problems before they occur.
“These groups of exotic owners and hoarders are so organized that now [if the bylaw is passed] when they are looking for a place to take their exotic creatures after they get kicked out of their municipality, they won’t focus on Muskoka.”