Sunday, October 07, 2007

WI AB 342 Rep Sheryl Albers

Testimony of Rep. Sheryl Albers
AB 342 – “Big” Cats Registry
Assembly Committee on Natural Resources
September 26, 2007

Mr. Chair and Members, thank you for hearing AB 342 today.

When law enforcement, an ambulance driver, a fire fighter or even a hunter comes
upon small domesticated cats, they don’t typically cringe. However, what if any
of these folks came face to face with a large, hungry, ferocious, cat?

On September 4 of this year, an Ohio resident, heard noises outside her home.
When she initially opened the front door she saw no one, but then upon looking
down she saw what she thought to be a crocodile off her stoop. She later
learned that her neighbor kept ten crocodiles -- as pets -- in the basement.
Apparently only one of the wild and dangerous animals escaped. CNN did not
report whether this animal’s owner was adequately injured given the hazardous
nature of what was kept on premises. Had this particular owner’s name been on a
registry, along with the types of animals he keeps as pets, perhaps the company
which insured the property would have given the owner premium estimates that
would provided the owner food for thought – as his pocketbook would have been
impacted. Had law enforcement responded to the unusual pounding on the door
absent adequate notice of the hazard, they would have been unprepared; ill
equipped, and may have been injured or killed when responding.

Should a professional in uniform be expected to respond to a 911 call of cardiac
arrest, or domestic abuse, when there is a large, perhaps hungry cat or a boa
constrictor, or other wild animal free on the property? Property owners have
rights but as we all know, with rights come responsibilities – and in the world
of those who keep and possess large, typically dangerous animals, others know
realize after the attack by the cat owned by Siegfried and Roy, that even the
most well trained cat is unpredictable in that it may turn on its owner/keeper
despite proper care.

There are many facilities in this state which exhibit large live non-native
animals, including big cats. Such facilities which open their doors to the
public for viewing come under regulation by the United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA). However, persons who keep animals on their property, but
who do not open their door to the public are not deemed “exhibitors” and
therefore these folks are not subject to USDA regulation. Earlier this year, I
learned that the USDA receives many calls per month from individuals who have
one or more large animal which may be captive but which do not come under the
captive wild animal regulations previously enacted and pursued by DuWayne
Johnsrud, former Assemblyman from the 96th Assembly District. Keeping one or
more cats in one’s backyard or in their residence, is not currently regulated,
inspected or licensed by USDA – if the facility is not open to the public.
Few municipalities have regulation in place to address such circumstances, and
such was the case when a large cat refuge came into existence in the Town of
Excelsior, Sauk County. Sauk County officials, in particular, Sauk County’s
public health officials, approached my office upon having their after-the-fact
ordinance challenged in court. The ordinance challenged was intended to
regulate an outdoor refuge, which was not necessarily subject to USDA
inspection/regulation, became unlike the local zoo, it was not open to the
public. I have included for your review a number of news clippings on this
matter, to make the point, that local government needs information to determine
whether an ordinance is even appropriate. Here, the township and the county had
no knowledge of the refuge until well after it was operating.

The substitute amendment to AB 342 circulated for your review today comes after
meeting with the refuge operator, the local Sauk County public health officials,
a USDA representative, and upon hearing from many local residents who are
concerned for their children, their families, and their livestock.

Ultimately, this particular facility may be obligated to register with the USDA
– if it comes to be open to the public as a non-profit operation. However,
until or unless that occurs, there are no state statutes requiring registration;
nor are there local or state fence standards that must be met, for there are no
applicable laws (local or state).

By USDA’s own admittance, fencing is left up to the full discretion of its
inspectors – with inspection being subject determination. To address this
concern, the preliminary substitute amendment before you, authorizes the
Department of Commerce to promulgate rules establishing minimum standards for
construction and inspection of fences.

Given federal preemption, the state cannot look to state law to compel the USDA
to turn over USDA’s inspection report to local or to a state agency. While
inspection-reports could be obtained under federal open records laws, to expect
a local or state agency to do that is not feasible. The state can, however,
obligate individuals to report, and under the draft, the DNR would determine
what animals must be reported; individuals who have a dangerous animal would
obligated to register; county clerks would receive information - and
disseminate it.– so that ultimately, law enforcement, emergency government
directors, and other emergency response teams like fire fighters and emergency
medical services providers would have information to determine whether the
sheriff’s department needs to join them in responding to a call. Once in
place, the registry will reveal whether additional statewide regulation is
appropriate, or whether local regulations via ordinance are needed.
Assembly Bill 342 is a work in progress. The original draft has been modified
to focus on public health and safety and to avoid duplicative, overlapping
regulations. Since the USDA has authority now, if more oversight is needed as
to public facilities, individuals wanting to pursue that direction will need to
contact their federal legislators.

This substitute amendment offered targets individuals and, or organizations who
own big cats who are not subject to USDA regulation, and the bill allows DNR to
broaden its list beyond big cats to other animals. Under the sub, if you own
a big cat you must register the big cat with the DNR and registration will be
made readily available to local units of government and their professional
workforce as well as their “volunteers.”

It is imperative that people understand the risk they take when they purchase a
cute, cuddly tiger cub, which a cub when an adult may be more than you can
handle. Too often adult animals, specifically adult-cats, may be wrongfully
released in to Wisconsin’s outdoors. From around the nation, many large cats
have already been accepted by the “Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue” in Sauk County,
which in recent months has relocated to the Village of Rock Springs – thus
avoiding county regulation.

When responding to a fire, an accident, a flood, or other emergency, I believe
responders deserve to know whether other dangers lie beyond the front door. I
offer the sub as a first step to developing a registry that will divulge whether
more must be done to protect those who do the job of protecting us.

Thank you for hearing AB 342 today. I am open to your suggestions and changes,
and will attempt to answer any questions you may have.

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