Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Win One, Lose One: When will they listen to us?

Six years ago, in court, Norman Buwalda emerged victorious against a challenge to his interests. Earlier this month, that victory caused Buwalda, age 66, his life.

Buwalda, who lived in the southwestern Ontario community of Southwold, was Chairperson of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association (CEAO). He loved to keep exotic pets his neighbors recognized as being very dangerous.Such fears were amplified six years ago when a 10-year-old boy was seriously mauled by one of Buwalda’s Siberian tigers. The child survived, apparently minus his esophagus. According to reports at the time, the boy, now sixteen, will probably have to be tube-fed for the rest of his life. We’re not sure exactly what happened to the youngster because soon after the boy virtually vanished, presumably his mother having been paid off to avoid a lawsuit, but we just don’t know for sure. The boy apparently was attacked when the tiger, on a leash, was brought out of its cage for photographs to be taken.

There is nothing unprecedented in any of this. For example in 1994, in another small Ontario town, Wiarton, a 16-year-old boy was attacked by a tiger at a private animal display and died of his injuries. In 2003 another 16-year-old, a girl working at a small private zoo in Grey County, was injured by a lion attack. And three years later lions attacked visitors, twice, in another small zoo near another small Ontario town, Leamington.

So after Buwalda’s tiger attacked the 10-year-old, the township finally listened to Buwalda’s neighbors and enacted a bylaw (which is the Canadian term for what Americans call an “ordinance”) to prohibit privately keeping dangerous exotic animals. My friend and colleague, Julie Woodyer, advised the council on how to effectively word the bylaw, but her advice was ignored. The text was badly written, and sure enough, Buwalda successfully defeated it in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Buwalda is still listed as Chairperson of CEAO on its website where it ever so grandly describes itself as “... individuals with varied backgrounds in animal husbandry, agriculture, biology, research, tracking and rescue work, education and awareness programs, zoology, endangered animal breeding successes, conservation’s [sic], rehabilitation and release programs, who [sic] efforts, experience and information have combined to develop and implement minimum standards.” Minimum standards for what is not made clear, but presumably they refer to how exotic animals are kept.

After that the grammar becomes too tormented to quote, except to say that, ironically, CEAO’s second goal is: “To assist municipalities and keepers with the safe and humane housing of exotic animals a. by keeping animals safely, this in turn protects the public and the animal keepers.” There is no plan “b”. In fact these and other goals listed for CEAO seem never to have been met, although it’s hard to say since the only contact person listed is Buwalda, now both dead and, surely, discredited as an authority on keeping people safe from potentially dangerous exotic animals.

I am disappointed with the town council of Southwold, six years ago, for ignoring the sound advice it was presented. When are people going to understand that we in the animal protection business really do know what we’re talking about?

And my concerns now are for both Buwalda’s animals and for Buwalda’s neighbors.The latter still very understandably feel that they are at risk. With Buwalda gone no one seems to know who is taking care of the animals, or how competent they are at preventing the big cats — two lions, two tigers, and a puma — from getting loose. This is an upscale community of established professionals who deserve better than to have to suffer the fears they now have for their children, their pets, and themselves. No one is blaming the tiger for being a tiger and doing what tigers can be expected to do, but they quite understandably want to be safer.

Now the council will try again. Will it listen to us?

Certainly the government of Ontario never has. Every province except Manitoba, where it so far has not been an issue, and Ontario, which has approximately a third of the country’s population, has at least some level of legislation banning or controlling the keeping of dangerous exotic “pets.” There is no such legislation in the far north, but neither is it an issue in such regions. So more than the late Mr. Buwalda, or the Southwold town council of six years ago, I am most angry at the provincial government of Ontario for constantly ducking the issue. Outside of communities that have passed the kind of bylaw the Southwold council will again try to achieve, throughout Ontario you can buy, own, or sell tigers, lions, pumas, crocodiles, spitting cobras, boa constrictors, or any other kind of dangerous animal without having to demonstrate any ability to do so safely.

It’s time for Ontario to do the right thing, and we stand ready to assist.

Barry Kent MacKay
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA