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The Status of Captive Wild Animals in the U.S.: An Overview of the Problem and the Laws

By Nicole Paquette
Source: Animal Law Institute Conference - Dallas, TX

IV. Where the Animals End Up

Many people might be surprised to learn that wild animals are being kept in horrendous situations throughout the country. Perhaps a neighbor breeds tigers and cougars for use in circuses or as “pets.” Maybe a co-worker travels to shopping malls on the weekends, charging customers for having their photo taken with his captive baboon. Across the nation, lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants, alligators, non-human primates, and other wild animals are possessed by private individuals, displayed in roadside zoos and menageries, used in traveling shows and circuses, and turn up in various venues across the nation.

Because the majority of states do not keep accurate records of exotic animals in their jurisdictions or have no laws governing captive wild animals, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how many wild animals are in the United States. The records kept pursuant to federal, state, and local laws merely lay out the individuals who possess the animals. In general the laws do not require an inventory to be kept as to how many animals each person possesses. What we do know, however, is that the number is likely in the millions as evidenced by the amount of people who have licenses under the Animal Welfare Act (see below) and licenses pursuant to state law.

A. Private Possession

Wild animals may be kept captive in private homes as someone’s “pet.” Common animals kept as pets include lions, tigers, cougars, ocelots, servals, wolves, bears, alligators, snakes, and nonhuman primates. Their very nature makes these animals incapable of being domesticated or tamed.

They are inherently dangerous. Across the country many privately held captive wild animals have attacked humans and other animals, or have escaped from their enclosures to freely roam the community. Throughout the country, children and adults have been mauled by tigers, bitten by monkeys, and asphyxiated by snakes. For example, monkeys are the most common non-human primates privately held. After the age of two, monkeys tend to exhibit unpredictable behavior. Males tend to become aggressive, and both males and females bite to defend themselves and to establish dominance. There have been numerous reported monkey bites since 1990 resulting in serious injury to the individual involved who was either the possessor, a neighbor, or a stranger on the street.

Further, many exotic animals are carriers of zoonotic disease, such as rabies, Herpes B, and salmonella, all of which are communicable to humans. For example, ninety percent of all reptiles carry and shed salmonella in their feces. Iguanas, snakes, lizards, and turtles are common carriers of the bacteria. Reptiles that carry salmonella do not show any symptoms, thus there is no simple way to tell which reptiles play host to the microbe and which do not, because even those that have it do not constantly shed the bacteria. The CDC recommends that children, people with compromised immune systems, and the elderly avoid all contact with reptiles and not possess them as pets.8 Salmonellosis associated with exotic pets has been described as one of the most important public health diseases affecting more people and animals than any other single disease. The CDC estimates that 93,000 salmonella cases caused by exposure to reptiles are reported each year in the United States.

Moreover, the average person cannot provide the special care, housing, diet, and maintenance these wild animals require. As a result, wild animal “owners” often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided. Tactics used include: confinement in small, barren enclosures; chaining; beating “into submission”; or painfully removing the animals claws or teeth.

B. Roadside Zoos and Menageries

Thousands of exploitative wildlife attractions exist throughout the United States, ranging from backyard menageries to so-called “sanctuaries,” to drive-through parks — most of which display various species of captive wildlife for a fee. Disguised as conservation, educational, or rescue facilities, roadside zoos and menageries are among the worst abusers of captive wildlife. Among the more benign discoveries, inspectors frequently documented animals being kept in cramped, dirty cages, often surrounded by trash.

Non-domesticated felines, such as lions and tigers are commonly housed at roadside zoos and menageries. These exotic animals are cute and cuddly when they are young but have the potential to kill or seriously injure people and other animals as they mature. Adult exotic felines weigh anywhere between 300 to 500 pounds depending on the species, and are incapable of being “domesticated.” Even an animal that appears to be friendly and loving can attack unsuspecting individuals. For example, in April 2003, a tiger fatally attacked a handler at Safari Joe’s Rock Creek Exotic Animal Park. The woman’s arm was severed by the tiger after she came too close the tiger’s cage. She had six years of experience as a large cat trainer.9

Facility managers frequently fail to provide animals with suitable social groupings, appropriate climate, or adequate veterinary care. With little opportunity for mental stimulation or physical exercise, these animals often become despondent, developing abnormal and self-destructive behaviors that include pacing, rocking, swaying, bar biting, pulling out hair and feathers, and self mutilation.

C. Circuses and Traveling Shows

Performing animals such as elephants, lions, tigers, bears, camels, and llamas endure years of physical and psychological suffering in traveling acts — all for the “entertainment” of audiences who remain ignorant of the animals’ natural behavior. Animals used in the circus and performing acts travel thousands of miles each year, often without water, in railroad cars or trucks that lack air-conditioning or heat. Elephants may be forced to stand in their own excrement, chained to a post for hours at a time, while being transported from one performance to another. As in roadside zoos, these performing animals do not receive the proper care, nutrition, nor environmental enrichment required for their well-being.

Since 1990, captive felines in circuses and traveling shows have been responsible for 65 documented human attacks — one-third of which resulted in fatal injuries. During that same time period, elephants in performance situations were responsible for 30 human deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide. In February 2003, in Florida, Chad, a 450-pound Bengal tiger with UniverSoul Circus, squeezed through an opening in his cage and escaped. Climbing over a car and fence, Chad startled a police officer and a worker at a nearby restaurant before circus workers could coax him back inside a cage.10

D. Other Venues

Captive wild animals may also be carted to venues such as shopping malls and elementary schools for public display. Under the guise of public education, they are forced to amuse groups of people, while their “owners” earn a profit by selling photos and charging presentation fees. Not surprisingly, the countless hours of travel and the poking and prodding of curious children increases the likelihood of animal attacks.

Of course, one can find captive wild animals in other places besides those listed above. Some captive wild animals are displayed at zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), others are shot and killed at canned hunts or hunting ranches, and still more are found in a variety of other “creative” places where people can make a profit by exploiting them.

The life of a captive wild animal is one of great suffering. Unfortunately, our laws provide them minimum protection on the whole. The real problem is that these animals are being freely bred and sold on the open market and are readily available to individuals who lack the expertise to properly care for them.

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