Wild and exotic animals, with few exceptions, belong in the wild and not in someone's backyard, basement, or barn.
That lesson needs to be learned again in the wake of last week's fatal mauling of a 24-year-old caretaker of a 400-pound black bear in a private wild-animal menagerie at Columbia Station, southwest of Cleveland.
The menagerie owner's license to show animals had been revoked, but he still kept dozens of bears, wolves, tigers, lions, and perhaps coyotes. The case, however tragic, is just another sad reflection of the state of affairs when it comes to oversight of private ownership of wild exotics. It borders on collective, societal negligence, and political and public indifference.
When you envision the licensing and permitting and regulatory side of this issue, think in terms of labyrinth or hodgepodge, patchwork quilt, or rat's maze.
Scratch any professional who has to deal, one way or another, with wild, exotic animals and under the skin you will find him or her fundamentally opposed to private ownership of wild, exotic animals.
Paul Kurfis, law enforcement for Ohio Wildlife District 2, must deal with the licensing or permitting for private ownership of the state's native species - the official list includes 22 species or families of birds, 12 species of "game quadrupeds," from bunnies to bears and boars; 12 species of furbearers, including badgers, coyotes, and bobcats; 47 species of reptiles [turtle and snakes], and 41 species of amphibians [salamanders and frogs].
It is about all a state wildlife officer can do, among a heavy load of other duties, to check up once a year on the status of permits, said Kurfis. Nor does the law and permitting cover oversight or scrutiny of a given captive animal's care - let alone the security for public safety's sake of its confinement.
"I would prefer to see native animals left in the wild. But it's not illegal to keep them under a propagator's permit," Kurfis stated. He voices a recurring theme.
Suffice it to say, you may well know somebody, or know somebody who knows somebody who is keeping a bear, a bobcat, a pit viper, a mountain lion [cougar], or God only knows what at home.
Burmese pythons, dumped in the wild and now breeding like Norway rats, threaten to swallow Florida's Everglades whole.
In Ohio alone, "we have so many cougars that we don't know what to do with them," asserts Tim Harrison, director of the Dayton-based Outreach for Animals. Many of these "pets" end up dumped, have escaped, or otherwise were released by their negligent or careless owners.
The state of private ownership of exotics has gotten so bad in Ohio, Harrison contends, that "we have people giving away bears and cougars."
A former public safety officer in Oakwood, a Dayton suburb, Harrison once watched a fellow firefighter die after being bitten by a rhino viper, a highly venomous African snake, in a burning house. The firefighters had antivenin on hand, but it did no good - and then there was no dose to protect Harrison if he too had been struck.
He started Outreach in 2001 with some other policemen, firefighters, and paramedics as a way of "educating young people about the realities of wildlife and how animals belong in their natural habitat."
The outfit aims to be a leading advocate "for proper behavior around wildlife by bringing greater understanding of wildlife to the general public through a national presence with lectures, programs, educational materials, and experience. We are committed to always be the goodwill ambassador and liaison between humans and animals." The organization's Web site, outreachforanimals.org, is filled with eye-opening documentation about the length, breadth, and depth of the problem. It includes a link to an award-winning film, Elephant in the Living Room.
"The sad part about all this is Ohio is the Number One state for sale of dangerous exotics to the public," Harrison asserts. When it comes to regulations, effectively "in Ohio we've got nothing," he accuses.
Sure, there is that labyrinth of state and federal laws and regulations, a mish-mash of local prohibitions and what-not, but it all is nigh impossible for government to keep track of. You can't keep exotics, -tigers and bears and such - in Toledo, for example. But what about your 'burb, or township, or the neighboring county?
You can get a state permit to keep a black bear, for instance, for $25 or $40 and a little paperwork, depending on whether you want to breed it or not. But if you want a grizzly, you might need a federal permit, for grizzlies are not on the state list. Nor are elk or cougars, for they are no longer native to Ohio.
Harrison cites the infamous Mount Hope exotic animal auction, where, three times a year, all manner of lions and tigers and "bears-oh-my" are sold off. It happens under what effectively is "no permit system," claims Harrison. It is just easier to ignore any laws or rules and figure you won't get caught.
"When you bring in [to captivity] a large, dangerous animal, all you've done is sign its death warrant," said Harrison. He cites endless cases of poor treatment - proper care is exceptional - and notes that in 90 percent of cases the animal ultimately is put down.
"We're supposed to appreciate and respect these animals at a distance," sums Harrison.
Indeed, nature has perfected it own system - absent of human morals and values - for taking care of its own. Nothing beats natural habitat and natural parenting, which has evolved across millennia of trial and error. And while survival Out There is uncompromising, our interventions At Home too often are so much ignorant bumbling.
Adds Anne Baker, chief executive office of the Toledo Zoo: "People don't realize the knowledge and resources that are required to properly house, feed, and provide medical care and an appropriate social environment for wild animals."
The zoo is among some 2,000 to 3,000 businesses licensed and periodically inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exhibit animals. But it more importantly also answers to the much higher standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which covers just 200 or so operations.
So who's minding the bear or python next door? When will a "friendly" wolf-dog hybrid on the loose, or a pet cougar on the lam some day decide to revert to its wild side and decide that a little schoolkid would make a nice snack?
Governor Ted Strickland this summer agreed to back two new laws and sign an executive order that headed off yet another ballot-initiative revolving around farm-animal welfare.
The laws relate to regulation of so-called puppy mills and toughening penalties for cockfighting. The executive order would ban the possession and sale of "wild and dangerous animals," including "big cats, bears, primates, large constricting and venomous snakes, and alligators and crocodiles."
Existing owners of such animals supposedly would be allowed to keep them under a grandfather clause but could not breed them or obtain more. Issuance of the executive order is pending, and it first may see a cycle of public comments and hearings.
But it says here that after the lawyers and lobbyists get through massaging and manipulating it, the order could look nothing like it was intended to. It may well end up effectively declawed and defanged - unlike the cougar or viper next door.
Contact Steve Pollick at: