Exotic animal rule criticized
Published: June 20, 2009
TALLAHASSEE - Animal rights groups cheered this week when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to ban people from keeping cougars, cheetahs and other exotic animals as pets.
But the new rules contain a lion-sized loophole, according to a local big-cat rescue group, which warns that people will now be able to turn their backyards into "sanctuaries" for dangerous species.
The wildlife commission voted unanimously Thursday to add cougars, panthers, cheetahs, hyenas, aardwolfs and gaurs, an oxlike creature, to the state's "Class I" list of animals that may not be kept as pets. The rule is effective in August. Exhibiting or selling Class I wildlife requires a special permit. The new rule includes a grandfather clause for people who already own cougars or other animals now banned as pets.
The commissioners also banned people from taking fox, skunks, bats, raccoons, and white-tailed deer from the wild to keep as pets, and beefed up requirements for owning a patas monkey, giraffe and several other species.
Leaders of Big Cat Rescue, a 47-acre refuge in northwest Tampa that is home to 137 animals, applauded those new restrictions. But the group also faulted the commission for creating a new classification of people and groups that can keep exotic Class I animals.
Ironically, that new classification of licensee - a "captive wildlife sanctuary" - fits Big Cat Rescue to a tee.
"The intent of the sanctuary is to provide a lifetime home, if you will, for any infirmed or wounded wildlife - this is the last stop for them," said Capt. Linda Harrison, who oversees the captive wildlife division at the Fish and Wildlife Commission. "They come in, they don't come out. It is a facility that is providing lifetime care for the animals."
She added: "Big Cat Rescue played a big role in guiding us in that direction."
But Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, says the final rule was flawed, making it too easy for more people or groups to keep dangerous animals on their property.
The main problem, she said, is that sanctuary licensees can choose not to exhibit their animals to the public - which would exempt them from a state bonding requirement, as well as additional regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State lawmakers passed a law in 2007 requiring that commercial exhibitors of Class I animals post $10,000 bonds, giving the public some reassurance about an owner's ability to pay restitution if his or her animal bites or mauls someone.
Baskin said that bonding requirement also helps to weed out people who lack the financial resources to properly care for an animal. Many of the large cats at her refuge, she said, are animals abandoned by such people.
"Now, if someone wants to have a tiger in their backyard, they can call themselves a sanctuary," she said.
It's true, Harrison said, that the new rule could allow an individual to create a wild animal sanctuary in their backyard. But it's not as simple as it sounds, she said. To qualify for a license, the applicant must be registered as a not-for-profit corporation in Florida. They must also meet the commission's site requirements and submit to inspections.
Keyword: Exotic Animals, to find out whether your neighbors are keeping exotic animals.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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