Friday, January 22, 2010

How many deaths before action on exotics?

Last year British Columbia introduced new rules for keeping exotic animals. Those rules were prompted by the 2007 death of Tanya Dumstry-Soos, who was mauled through a barrier by a caged tiger while her children stood and watched. It remains to be seen how effective BC’s rules will actually be, but at least the government responded.

Here in Ontario, injuries and deaths don’t seem to matter. Just a short while ago, exotic animal keeper Norm Buwalda was killed by one of his pet tigers. That same tiger attacked and very seriously injured a boy in 2004. Those two incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

When asked about the exotic pet situation, Premier Dalton McGuinty opined that the problem was the responsibility of individual municipalities. It’s clear his government isn’t going to do anything.

While municipalities have the authority to enact bylaws to control and, to some extent, regulate, the keeping of animals, my guess is they’re more comfortable dealing with dogs, cats and maybe even livestock, than they are with big cats, primates and venomous reptiles.

Municipalities just don’t have the expertise and resources to develop and enforce rules and regulations governing wild animals, including the multitude of dangerous species common in the pet trade. They also lack the background knowledge necessary to counter arguments made by highly visible, very vocal, local exotic pet proponents who come out of the woodwork to oppose regulation. But many municipalities forge ahead nonetheless and do their best to formulate rules or they opt to prohibit certain kinds of wild animals altogether.

Unfortunately, many bylaws are poorly written and there’s no uniformity. Some jurisdictions prohibit certain species, while neighbouring municipalities don’t. Some have housing standards, while others have none. Many jurisdictions don’t have any laws at all, so if an animal owner runs into a problem in one municipality, they just move into the municipality next door. It’s a patchwork mess.

The list of incidents begins more than two decades ago. A 16 year old boy killed by his uncle’s pet tiger. A teenager’s arm torn off by a lion at a private zoo. A 2 year old boy bitten on the head by a pet cougar. A tiger jumps out of a cage and remains on the lam for more than 2 days. A “stray” baby tiger turns up on a porch in a small Ontario town. An escaped lion runs after a jogger near Belleville. Two lions break out of a barn near Niagara Falls. The list gets longer every year.

It’s difficult to understand why people want to keep animals that can seriously injure or kill them, but they do. And it’s astonishing how many wild animal pet owners dismiss, ignore or seem unaware of the risks their animals pose. They house them in unsafe cages, play with them, take them for walks outside or for a ride in the car. They calmly and routinely put themselves and the public at risk. It’s amazing.

There’s no legislating against stupidity and I suppose people are free to endanger themselves in all kinds of ways. But the exotic wild animal crowd's imperviousness to reality shouldn’t put children, bystanders, neighbours and community members, including livestock and companion animals, at risk too.

Since the early 1980s the Ontario government has known there’s a problem. In fact, it would be hard for them not to know. Over the years there have been hundreds of media stories and government ministries have received thousands of letters. Numerous private members bills have been pushed, government committees and working groups formed, meetings held and countless other initiatives come and gone. Every political party has acknowledged there’s a problem, but none have taken definitive action. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Premier McGuinty is just the latest premier to shrug off any responsibility for the situation.

Today anyone can still acquire almost any exotic wild animal they want and no license is required, no questions asked. They can house their animals in cramped, crappy, unsafe, homemade cages and they don’t need any expertise or experience in caring for or handling their animals. No matter which way you look at it, it’s insane. How many deaths will it take before the Government of Ontario acts? Your guess is a good as mine.

Rob Laidlaw

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