Exotic and exploited? ‘Dangerous’ exotic animals can be pets in Wisconsin

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When Bekah Weitz’ phone rings, she never knows what is waiting for her on the other end of the line.

During one of her shifts working animal control for the Eau Claire County Humane Association in 2005, a confused officer responding to a house fire in Dunn County called for backup after being tipped off that a shed attached to the burning house contained several pet cats -- big cats.

More specifically, tigers. And no one knew they were there prior to the fire.

Weitz advised the officer not to act until she and other animal control officers arrived on the scene. If the tigers were to escape, Weitz said, they should be considered extremely dangerous, and the officers should take action to defend themselves and those in the neighborhood if necessary.

While en route to the scene, Weitz received another phone call from the officer: The tigers had been found, but all of them had died from smoke inhalation.

Recalling the incident, Weitz -- now a humane investigator for Monroe County -- said that “as horrible as that was for them, it was probably the best case scenario for everybody involved because it didn't mean that there were loose tigers in the area.”

Wisconsin is one of just five states that allow residents to keep almost any animal they want as a pet, making it a draw for animal smugglers, critics say. The others are Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The "lion-like" creature on the loose that prompted a massive police search in and around Milwaukee has raised questions about the wisdom of allowing dangerous exotic animals to be kept as pets.

Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said it is easier for someone in Wisconsin to own a dangerous exotic animal, such as a tiger, than to own a native animal, including a white-tailed deer.

“In some cases, it's easier to own a tiger than a dog,” Leahy added. “Many places will require the dog be registered and vaccinated. There is no such requirement for a pet tiger.”

And although there are some federal laws governing the sale, breeding, transportation and exhibition of exotic animals, critics say there are not enough inspectors to police the wild animal trade. Regulation also is fragmented among several state and federal agencies, allowing some repeat offenders to evade enforcement, records show.

Some municipalities in Wisconsin, including Janesville, do ban some exotic animals. Milwaukee does not have a ban on specific pets but does prohibit ownership of animals that have a known propensity to attack people, other domestic pets or animals.

But an effort in the 2013-14 session to ban “the possession, propagation and sale of dangerous exotic animals” in Wisconsin failed to advance in the Legislature. A similar bill is being pushed again this year.

However, some animal rescue organizations say stricter legislation could prohibit ownership of common pets like lizards and small snakes. Dealers and breeders argue some exotic animals live longer in captivity than they would have in their native habitat.

Weitz said that while she would like to see stricter rules regulating exotics in Wisconsin, she believes owners should be able to keep their exotics as long as the animals are well cared for and not a safety risk.

“No one's going to be saying, ‘You can't keep a Chinese water dragon in your home’ because that's like a 2-inch lizard,” Weitz said. “What people are going to be saying is, ‘You can't keep a crocodile in your home,’ you know? (Restricting) dangerous exotics is really the goal.”

Many animals, few inspectors

While there are no laws to regulate private ownership of exotic pets in Wisconsin, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues permits to people who sell, handle or exhibit warm-blooded animals or use them in research.

Owners of deer parks, zoos, petting farms and wildlife parks are among those required to be registered or licensed.

USDA inspectors are supposed to conduct regular, unannounced visits to licensed or registered facilities to ensure animals are receiving proper veterinary care, being treated humanely and have clean, ventilated enclosures. Compliance with these minimum requirements is mandated under the Animal Welfare Act, according to Andrea McNally, intergovernmental affairs specialist for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington, D.C.

The agency uses a “risk-based” system” that focuses primarily on inspecting “problem facilities,” she said.

Wisconsin has 193 active licensees and registrants and four inspectors assigned to the state, according to McNally. This number is too small, Leahy said, resulting in too few inspections.

And it can take repeated, serious violations for a USDA license to be revoked.

For example, it took 19 “willful” violations between 2009 and 2011 at Lakewood Zoo in the Oconto County town of Mountain for the USDA to take action against the zoo’s owner and operator, Casey Ludwig. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

A complaint, filed in June 2014, cited Ludwig for several serious violations, including failure to provide “minimally adequate veterinary care” and for failing to allow inspectors into the facility. Ludwig also was cited for “failure to provide a tiger with sufficient food,” causing it to develop bone disease.

A judge concluded that Ludwig’s “willful” violations showed he was “unqualified to be licensed” and revoked his license in January, which, McNally said, prevents him from applying for a license in the future. But Ludwig’s license had already expired at the end of 2011 -- just over three years prior to its revocation -- and the zoo had closed in 2012.

Want to buy a tiger?

For Wisconsin residents, purchasing an exotic pet can be as easy as the click of a computer mouse.

On Exotic Animals for Sale, one can buy a breeding pair of wallabies for $5,500; a 3-week-old, bottle-fed black and white capuchin monkey that wears diapers and clothes for $6,800; an Arctic fox pup for $500; a two-toed sloth for $4,400; and a zebra filly for $5,000.

Even if USDA licensees do import exotic animals with the proper permits, Leahy said there is nothing to prevent them from giving animals to unlicensed individuals.

Individuals also can obtain exotic pets by visiting animal auctions. USDA-licensed facilities in Wisconsin can and do legally consign various animals to the auctions. They include emus, ostriches and kangaroos, according to certificates of veterinary inspection provided to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in response to an open records request.

For instance, Mark Schoebel, the owner of Timbavati Wildlife Park in Wisconsin Dells and Animal Entertainments, a Neshkoro business that rents out animals for shows and fairs, has consigned some of his animals to the Lolli Brothers Livestock Market in Macon, Missouri, which Leahy said conducts the country’s largest exotic animal auctions.

A certificate dated April 6 showed that Animal Entertainments sent 14 exotic animals -- including a 10-month-old crowned crane, an 8-month-old zebra and a blackbuck (antelopes native to India whose survival is considered “near threatened”) -- to the Lolli Brothers market.

“Auctions are of special concern because they foster impulse purchases, and people with no qualifications whatsoever can purchase animals with especially complex needs,” Leahy said.

Schoebel failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact him over the previous two months. In a statement issued by his attorney Thursday, Schoebel said he is following all laws related to consignment of animals to auction. Schoebel said in the statement that he has never been accused of any “physical or psychological harm” to animals.

“I have been licensed by the USDA, who is responsible for animal welfare and care,” the statement said. “I have been in good standing with the department for many decades. … My life has been devoted to animals.”

However, Schoebel did have a run-in with law enforcement in the mid-1980s stemming from a federal investigation into wild animal smuggling. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee to four counts of violating federal wildlife laws, paid a $1,000 fine and got four years of probation for failing to properly document or get permits to transport protected waterfowl, raccoons and 17 bears.

In his plea deal, Schoebel agreed to work with prosecutors to uncover illegal trafficking of animals.

Hard to care for seized animals

When bad things happen, humane officers like Weitz and Mark Hess are some of the first people to respond.

Hess has worked at the Waukesha Humane Animal Welfare Society for nearly four decades. He has responded to calls involving a runaway ostrich, an escaped wallaby, a primate surrendered after its owner died and a deadly spitting cobra that had bitten its owner.

Even if an animal is corralled, the question arises, what to do with it?

One of Hess’ most recent challenges has been finding a home for more than 300 chinchillas seized from a Waukesha home in late March. So far the Waukesha humane society has invested more than $100,000 to care for the small rodents native to South America. It’s a cost the organization will likely never recoup.

Many larger, more dangerous exotics in need of a home have found refuge at Valley of the Kings, a 10-acre animal sanctuary and retreat in Sharon funded largely from donations and the sanctuary’s president and founder, Jill Carnegie, and her family and friends.

Many of the animals at the sanctuary, including lions, tigers, a ti-liger (an extremely rare cross between a liger and a tiger), wolf hybrids, bears, foxes and bobcats, were abandoned by private owners or donated by zoos that didn’t have room to house them. Others were seized by the state Department of Natural Resources or discovered in drug raids, Carnegie said.

Lena, a dainty female tiger, was one of a dozen big cats taken from an ex-circus trainer hoarding them in 4-foot by 5-foot, tarp-covered crates whose locks had rusted shut in his Indiana home, Carnegie said.

Andy Carlson, who has been volunteering at Valley of the Kings for over 20 years, said when Lena finally worked up the courage to venture out of her crate at the sanctuary, she stared upward, fascinated by the sky. He believes she had never seen it before.

Hess said many of his cases end in tragedy for the animals. Euthanasia is used as a last resort when a home cannot be found for an animal, but sometimes it is the only choice if a dangerous animal is a public health or safety risk, he said.

Communities regulate some animals

Some municipalities have passed legislation on their own to ban certain types of animals within their borders.

Janesville, for instance, prohibits any “wild, exotic, and/or vicious pets including raccoons, any pigs, and poisonous or constricting snakes such as pythons or boas.” Ferrets and non-poisonous or non-constricting snakes are not included in the ban.

An effort to enact such a ban statewide failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

In January 2014, Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, authored Assembly Bill 703 that would have prohibited “the possession, propagation, and sale of dangerous exotic animals,” including lions and tigers, nonnative bears, various primates and alligators, crocodiles and caimans.

Current pet owners would have been grandfathered in, so long as they registered their pets and notified authorities if their animals escaped.

This year, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, is pushing another bill, not yet introduced, to ban ownership of dangerous exotics. Wanggaard told the Associated Press the legislation is in response to the search for the Milwaukee “lion” and a 2013 incident in which police and the Racine Zoo discovered rattlesnakes, alligators, crocodiles, a snapping turtle and a Gila monster in a Kenosha home.

Possible ban raises concern

But some in the industry worry a ban could result in legislation prohibiting the ownership of even common household pets. Others have said continuing to allow the keeping of exotic pets is in the best interest of the animals themselves.

Bill Zelenski, owner and operator of the USDA-licensed Wild Bill’s Exotics in Waupaca, said he buys, sells, breeds, rents and trades “any kind of animal you can imagine.”

Zelenski, whose buyers include the Milwaukee County Zoo, said everyone he purchases animals from is licensed by the USDA, except for those who sell him reptiles and birds, which are not regulated by the agency.

Zelenski said he is “100 percent” against stricter exotic animal laws in Wisconsin because he does not believe lawmakers have enough experience or knowledge on the subject.

He also noted that some of his captive exotics live longer than their wild peers. He currently has a 21-year-old ring-tailed lemur that recently fathered twins; ring-tailed lemurs living wild in Madagascar usually live to be 16 to 17 years old, according to the National Zoo.

Weitz said it is important to consider the effect of the exotic animal trade on people, too.

“It's just not fair that someone can move next door to my kid and keep … a tiger,” Weitz said. “If my child were to accidentally get in their yard or the tiger were accidentally to get in mine, you know, it's not worth it.”

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Portions of this story were first published in Curb, a magazine produced by UW-Madison journalism students. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Enforcement of exotic animal laws handled by several agencies

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary agency responsible for policing the exotic animal trade. But other state and federal agencies play a role.

Under state law, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources only regulates native species -- which cannot be removed from the wild -- and several species that have been deemed too “harmful,” including wild and feral swine and bears, according to DNR communications director Jim Dick.

The agency issues captive wild animal farm licenses to those who wish to keep native wild animals such as skunks, cougars and wolves. The USDA allocates licenses for non-native species.

Other agencies are responsible for regulating the interstate and international transportation of animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces the Lacey Act, which prohibits the import and interstate transport of “injurious species” such as Burmese pythons, mongooses and fruit bats, and restricts the transportation of captive-bred big cats, according to Tina Shaw, public affairs specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest region.

The agency also enforces the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits interstate sale and transportation of species listed under the act including the gray wolf, American alligator and whooping crane. However, there are some exemptions for institutions like zoos, which are able to donate and move the species among themselves, Shaw said.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection lists several species -- prairie dogs and tree squirrels among them -- that may not be imported into Wisconsin because they are known to carry highly contagious diseases.

In addition, the department requires people transporting an animal across the Wisconsin border -- even a pet dog -- to have the animal inspected by a veterinarian, who completes a certificate of veterinary inspection. If the animal is a common household pet such as a dog, cat or ferret, the veterinarian makes sure the animal is up to date on all vaccinations.

That certificate is then sent to the state veterinarian of the origin state, the destination state and every state that the animal passes through, said Bekah Weitz, a humane officer for Monroe County.

In theory, the requirement for animal owners to obtain such certificates creates a paper trail to track animals crossing state borders. But Weitz said the illegal, undocumented transportation of animals across state lines happens “more often than we’d like to admit.”

“I can pretty much guarantee that most agencies and most individuals don't (obtain certificates),” Weitz said. “I mean, when I take my dog on vacation to Michigan I don't do that.”

She added, “I think there's probably a lot more transportation of animals, exotic or otherwise, than we have any idea of, and being that Wisconsin is a state where there is no regulation for the keeping of exotics, I would imagine that it's probably ... pretty attractive to certain people.”

— Haley Henschel