In a number of North Carolina counties, it’s legal to keep a lion or tiger in your backyard.
A bill introduced in the House seeks to change that. House Bill 554 would make it illegal for members of the public to possess, sell, transfer or breed dangerous wild animals, defined as red and gray wolves, all feline species except domesticated cats, and all species of hyena, aardwolf, bear and primates.
The bill would also forbid the public from direct physical contact with a dangerous wild animal regardless of its age.
“Right now, anyone can keep a wild cat, a bear or similar animals as pets. That is problematical,” said the bill’s primary sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County. “These types of animals are dangerous, and there are places with the skills to keep them but your average person doesn’t have those skills.”
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McGrady said The Humane Society of the United States sought the legislation. North Carolina is one of a few states that do not have statewide regulation of these types of animals, according to the society’s state director, Kimberley Alboum.
“We have to do the responsible thing and ban private ownership,” Alboum said.
The bill provides a grandfather clause with specific requirements for those already in possession of dangerous wild animals. An owner of a wild animal must register and pay a fee to local animal control, showing proof of liability insurance. The owner must also have a contingency plan for the animal in case of disaster.
This is especially important to first responders, Alboum said, who need to know what they are walking into when they enter a house or backyard.
Carolina Tiger Rescue, a wildlife sanctuary in Pittsboro, supports the bill because the organization doesn’t believe in private ownership or that animals should be used for commercial purposes, said Executive Director Pam Fulk. A number of animals that come to Carolina Tiger Rescue from private owners are malnourished because the owners were not properly trained to care for them, Fulk said.
But another rescue organization, The Conservators Center in Burlington, is among the loudest critics, claiming the bill, while well-intended, has negative consequences for wildlife centers that also function as zoos and depend on visitors for revenue.
The Conservators Center’s executive director, Mindy Stinner, said that while no one wants backyard tigers, the bill would shut down approximately 25 small zoos that are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but not the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The bill would exempt a number of facilities, including accredited zoos, research facilities, wildlife sanctuaries, veterinary hospitals and circuses.
Stinner said the center’s mission is to be educational, not just a rescue sanctuary. She said that although the center takes rescues, some animals come from breeders, and the center also participates in a breeding program that supplies animals to accredited zoos.
“You cannot take an animal out of the wild every time you want to exhibit one,” she said.
The Conservators Center could seek exemption under the bill as a wildlife sanctuary, but that would require it to stop breeding and any commercial activity with the wild animals.
“This is a super complex issue in a complex industry,” Stinner said.
Without an exemption, the center would not be allowed to bring in more animals as the current ones die off. Not only would this put it out of business at some point, it would also cause the remaining animals over time to become lonely, Stinner said.
When animals lose their companions, they don’t react well to being alone. Law enforcement could determine the animal is not under proper care due to resulting behavior and confiscate it.
If there is not a long-term home for that animal in an accredited zoo or sanctuary, it could be euthanized under the bill.
McGrady doesn’t believe any animals are in danger as a result of his bill.
“The Conservators’ Center describes the bill as terrifying and raises the prospect of big cats and other similar animals being euthanized,” he said. “I just don’t believe the bill is terrifying or that the bill will result in animals being euthanized, and their over-the-top arguments undercut their credibility.”
When asked why small zoos like The Conservators Center with USDA certification are not exempt under House Bill 554, McGrady said he will probably make revisions to the bill but that he remains skeptical about the USDA’s certification standards.
“One of the issues is that I’m trying to tell if the USDA certification means anything,” McGrady said. “I have no skills to handle and house big cats and bears, but it looks like it would be a simple matter for me to get this certification. I also don’t know yet just how rigorous the USDA is in monitoring those who it’s certifying.”
Stinner disagreed, saying the USDA is the same organization that inspects farms and food nationwide and that it has due process for handling violations.