Thursday, July 05, 2007

Utah city bans big cats, other exotics as pets

By Amy Choate-Nielsen
Deseret Morning News

AMERICAN FORK — When Sienna and Sierra emerge from the kitchen, they bound into the arms of their loving caretaker with wet kisses and giant paw hugs — a joyous reunion after a five-minute separation.

Until recently, Troy Bentley worried that he might lose these two wolf-hybrid dogs — now playfully wriggling on their backs for attention — but today Bentley can rest easy. On Tuesday, American Fork's City Council approved an exotic animal ordinance that forbids pets like Bentley's from living in the city, but since Bentley was here first and he and his pets were already properly licensed, the dogs can stay.

"I get to keep my kids," Bentley said, as 78-pound Sierra tries to snuggle into his arms. "These are my kids. ... They're wherever I am. If I'm in the house, they're in the house. If I'm in the yard, they're in the yard. They're constant companions; they're always with us."

Bentley's wolf dogs will be grandfathered into the city's ordinance until they, or their owner, dies. The same permission applies to any other resident of American Fork who has a licensed exotic pet, although the city isn't aware of any other such animals.

For other creatures that may consider crawling into American Fork homes as pets, the message is clear: keep out. According to the city's ordinance, which will become effective within the next few days, exotic animals, such as lions, tigers, bears — oh my! — and porcupines and pythons, are not allowed in the city except in circuses, laboratory experiments, zoos and a few other facilities.

If residents decide to keep an exotic animal — which, among other things, the city defines as a creature with a potential threat to the safety of residents and an uncommon history of being domesticated — the punishment is a $250 fine and possible prosecution for a Class C misdemeanor.

"The purpose for the ordinance is public safety," said Kasey Wright, American Fork's city attorney. "This is a common ordinance in many cities, and it was just a hole in the American Fork city ordinance that they didn't have one."

The city will rely on residents to report infractions to the city, Wright said, as a means of enforcing the ordinance. But Bentley says ordinances like this are hard to keep track of and they put the blame for being dangerous on the wrong species.

"I think (the city) has good intentions, and they are protecting the citizens to the best of their ability," Bentley said. "But I think there are better ways. ... I would rather see the (pet) owner looked at instead of the breed."

Still, Mayor Heber Thompson says he doesn't think the new ordinance makes the town less friendly to animals.

"I think we've been friendly to domestic pets, like most cities probably have," Thompson said. "But it is because of the thinking of the council and the little bit of citizen input we've got that we've made this ordinance that is family-protective and family-friendly."

This ordinance is a good thing, according to Russ Mead, general counsel for the Best Friends Animal Society, which is one of the nation's largest sanctuaries for abused and abandoned pets.

Even though Utah doesn't require wolf dogs to be licensed, Mead says the animals are dangerous and they can't be trusted. One minute, the animals can act like dogs, Mead says, but at any time, they can shift to be wolves.

"They can't be domesticated and they shouldn't be domesticated and they shouldn't be in people's homes," Mead said. "They're magnificent animals, but they don't fit in anywhere. ... It's just irresponsible breeding that creates these wolf dogs, and we (the Best Friends Animal Society) have to clean up the messes of the irresponsible breeders of these animals."

Bentley inadvertently brought attention to the city's nonordinance for exotic pets in February, when he moved from Oregon to American Fork. When the wolf-dog lover arrived in the city, he made a courtesy call to the city's animal control officer to let him know that his licensed and vaccinated wolf dogs were in town.

From there, concerns were raised because the city didn't have any laws prohibiting potentially dangerous animals, but Bentley was made aware that he might have to euthanize his dogs if such a law was put in place.

Bentley argues that his 6-year-old girls, with their ash-white eyelashes and big brown eyes, have never been violent toward anyone. The dogs are a mix of wolf, husky and German shepherd, which makes them stronger than average canines, but strength doesn't mean violence, Bentley said. Mixed dogs that lash out are a product of their upbringing, for which their caretaker is responsible.

"It all goes back to how a person treats the animal, not what kind of breed it is," Bentley said. "There are some breeds that are more dangerous, but (violent incidents) usually come back to human error, and we tend to focus on the breed."

E-mail: achoate@desnews.com

http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,680195673,00.html

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