Keeping Exotic Animals in California

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Dozens of Californians receive permits to keep exotic species, but the state agency in charge of enforcement says it isn’t able to police violators.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2005.

By CHARLES DUHIGO, Times Staff Writer

FIFTY-ONE facilities in Los Angeles County — from private residences to the L.A. Zoo — possess legal permits to house exotic animals, according to the California’s Department of Fish and Game. Some animals — such as the black spider monkeys cavorting at the Playboy Mansion — till private zoos. Some are rescued from abusive owners and placed in sanctuaries. Many fill Hollywood’s need for docile monkeys, alligators and other camera-friendly wildlife.

But because the agency does not provide details about where facilities are located, few Southern Califomians know what sort of exotic animals lives next door.

Some — such as tigers and cobras — are prohibited within many cities by local ordinances, according to Steve Martarano with Fish and Game. In populated but unregulated areas of the Southland, the roar you hear at night may be coming from your neighbor’s backyard.

“If you called our agency and asked if your next-door neighbor had a tiger, we would say yes or no,” says Martarano. “But your neighbor doesn’t have to tell you anything.” Martarano also said there is no state law requiring owners to Immediately report escaped animals.

However, the law may change. The escaped tiger that was shot and killed in Ventura County on Feb. 23 prompted Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Moorpark) to announce plans to introduce legislation requiring exotic animal owners to immediately report missing animals.

Additionally, while owners have a 14-day grace period to report new additions to their menageries, Strickland’s legislation would require them to register arrivals immediately. It also would require Fish and Game to develop written policies for capturing animals and using lethal force.

Currently owners who apply for permits must navigate through 25 pages of long regulations that dictate everything from qualifications (applicants must be at least 18 years of age and possess two years of full-time experience caring for similar animals), to feeding (food shall be wholesome and palatable) and handling (animals cannot be chained or tethered, except during filming, training, exhibition or cage cleaning). There are also regulations regarding cage size and durability. (Want a rhinoceros? Set aside at least 1,500 square feet.)

Though the process to gain a permit requires reams of paperwork, Pish and Game says it doesn’t have the staff to monitor all the animals once the permits are in place.

“Policing restricted species isn’t the highest item on our priority list,” says Martarano, who adds that some Californians keep wild animals without permits. “Our enforcement has suffered because of budget problems. Until an animal escapes or is reported, we usually don’t have the resources to investigate. Typically we rely on neighbors or other animal handlers to report abuse.”

Southern California exotic animal owners were sanctioned at least 67 times since 1998, according to Martarano, who says the agency does not release details on individual cases. A sanction can range from citing an owner for minor noncompllance to confiscating an animal.

Recently, the number of confiscations has increased. In February, Riverside County tiger sanctuary operator John Weinhart was convicted of child endangerment and animal cruelty two years after authorities seized dozens of cubs and adult tigers from his properties. In 2004, the agency confiscated 27 wild birds and a coyote from a San Diego woman’s backyard. (San Diego officials declined to prosecute her even though she didn’t have a permit.)

In 2000, Fish and Game prohibited the Wildlife Waystation, a refuge in the Angeles National Forest, from accepting new animals after a cage-by-cage inspection of 1,200 animals. The sanctuary reopened in 2001, though it was closed to visitors by Los Angeles County in 2002 due to fire hazards, according to a spokesperson.

There is also the problem of escapes. On March 3, two adult male chimps escaped from their cages at the Animal Haven Ranch in Kem County and attacked visitor St. James Davis, causing life-threatening injuries. It took almost four hours to find the escaped chimps, according to Martarano.

But state officials and many permit holders say the vast majority of restricted species are well cared for and safely contained.

“It took me two years to get my permits and Fish and Game keeps on top of making sure everyone plays by the rules,” said Steve Martin of Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife, a ranch in Lockwood Valley that provides lions and elephants to the movie industry.

Others, like Los Angeles County resident Sophie Morton, says it is her right to own any animal she wants if she cares for the creature and complies with state and local regulations.

My first cat was a little bobcat that was injured,” says the Los Angeles County resident, who declines to say exactly where she lives. “I didn’t know I needed a license. I kept the bobcat for three years.”

Today Morion’s home is occasionally filled with rescued animals but she reftised to give specifics about where she keeps them and how many she currently owns.

National wildlife activists say the only way to prevent escapes and protect animals from abuse is through federal legislation. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are up to 6,000 tigers and 15,000 primates in private captivity nationwide, and 30 states do not regulate tiger ownership. The U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation making it illegal to transport primates across state lines without a federal permit.