Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More State Legislation to Control Exotic Animals - West Virginia

Group seeking exotic animal rules won't give up
By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Welcome to “Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia,” and that slogan remains applicable to exotic animals born outside the majestic mountains, since the Legislature failed to turn in legislation acceptable to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

One of his few vetoes this year was SB477, aimed at letting the Division of Natural Resources impose rules on keeping animals not native to West Virginia.

While the proposal triggered thoughts of giraffes, bull elephants and Bengal tigers roaming in one’s spacious backyard, it actually was intended to cover any animal not indigenous to these hills.

Actually, two bills were offered, and the final version merely would have turned regulations over to the DNR, with the right to destroy diseased animals and seek criminal penalties for violations of certain provisions.

Born Free USA promoted the legislation, offered by Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, and group isn’t letting defeat in this past session stop it from stepping to the plate a year from now, says program associate Tracy Coppola.

“West Virginia remains one of only eight states left lacking any restriction or oversight for the private possession of exotic animals,” Coppola said.

“We are hopeful that we can work out a bill that will be signed by the governor.”

Amy Shuler-Goodwin, communications director for the governor, said Tomblin found fault with SB477 because it was “overly broad.”

“It didn’t specifically define what is an exotic animal and what is not,” she said.

A second reason for the veto was that it diverted all enforcement to the DNR via the rule-making process, and Tomblin also was concerned about the lack of funding built into the bill, she said.

As for regulating exotic animals, however, Tomblin doesn’t oppose the idea of the state imposing some restrictions, she emphasized.

“What we always want to make sure of with any piece of legislation — it doesn’t just apply to this bill — is that all our I’s are dotted and all of our T’s are crossed,” she said.

“It’s necessary to make sure we know all of these things.”

As for intent, SB477 said the Legislature finds it necessary to protect West Virginians from the risks associated with non-native animals. The bill would have allowed for the destruction of any diseased animals and the “immediate confiscation” of all exotic animals kept in violation of the proposed law. Violators would have faced a fine of $200 to $2,000 as a misdemeanor crime.

Intentionally and knowingly allowing such animals to escape elevates the offense to a felony in SB477. And that would have led to a prison term of one to three years, or a maximum fine of $5,000, or both.

On its website, Born Free USA says its goal is to lower the suffering of captive animals introduced in America for profit or personal amusement and to raise public awareness of the “cruel and destructive exotic animal trade.”

Captive animals are swept up in a billion-dollar industry, since they are bred, sold and traded in huge numbers, the group says.

“But these animals — including, among other species, lions, tigers, cougars, wolves, bears, monkeys, alligators, and venomous snakes and other reptiles — pose grave dangers to human health and safety,” the organization states.

“By their very nature, exotic animals are unpredictable and are incapable of being domesticated or tamed.”

Coppola provided statistics showing 1,685 incidents that led to 75 human deaths across the nation, adding the figures are “truly just a fraction of what’s really out there,” since some occurrences go unreported or are dismissed as insignificant.

“We are frightened for the people of West Virginia, for all the exotic animals that continue to be so easily acquired, and for the communities exposed to such danger,” she said.

“Born Free USA, many members of the Legislature, and members of the public believe that, when it comes to West Virginia, we are truly in an emergency situation.”

Summer Wyatt, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, says her organization wasn’t a sponsor of the legislation, but did support it.

Her concern was over two bills that never reached the floor of either chamber for a vote — the creation of a spay-neuter fund, and regulation of commercial dog breeders.

“This is the fourth or fifth year for the ‘puppy mill’ bill,” Wyatt said. “We are going to keep pushing it.

The spay-neuter legislation began as one that would have imposed a higher fee on pet food but ultimately abandoned this idea in favor of an appropriation that some critics saw as inadequate to confront the problem of feral cats and stray dogs.

This one was sponsored by the Federation of Humane Organizations, but had the support also of Wyatt’s group.

“We don’t know what happened,” Wyatt said.

“By the end of session, so many people are trying to get many things done. There is so little time and so few committee hearings and so many bills. We don’t know exactly what happened. Everybody says something different. All I can tell you is we’ll have the same ‘puppy mill’ language next year and we’ll have an exotic animal bill of some type, whether it’s a ‘Born Free’ bill or our bill and see what we can to do not have it vetoed.”

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