The Conservators Center rescued 14 abused lions and tigers in 2004. Four of the females arrived pregnant and gave birth to 15 cubs. The “babies” are now old enough to be considered geriatric. Remarkably, five of the original cats we rescued are still enjoying their golden years at our wildlife conservancy. We are proud to provide them exceptional care.
Today, fortunately, fewer exotic animals require rescue from dire circumstances, and many of our residents are retirees from other animal facilities. For instance, our most recent resident came to us from the San Diego Zoo.
We support our animals by providing educational tours, field trips and family-oriented events. Visitors are thrilled to meet 20 species of exotic animals and often tell us happy and healthy our animals appear, and how passionate our staff is about their well-being.
But a bill moving through the N.C. House of Representatives is threatening our residents’ peaceful world. If it passes as written, most of the 80 animals in our care could be confiscated by the end of this year. Those for whom new homes are not found could be sentenced to death. This includes all of our exotic cats (large and small), wolves and ring-tailed lemurs.
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HB554 is intended to protect public safety and animal welfare but actually undermines both. It simultaneously permits unregulated, uninspected facilities to operate legally, while prohibiting federally regulated, licensed and consistently inspected facilities (like ours) from operating past Dec. 1.
More than 25 USDA-licensed sites across North Carolina house affected species. The only zoos in N.C. protected by this bill are the three accredited by the AZA (a private organization with no regulatory authority), all of which receive taxpayer funding. Our legislators are poised to spend $25 million on the N.C. Zoo while simultaneously considering a bill that would potentially shutter homes for hundreds of animals.
The listed species could be rehomed only to wildlife sanctuaries and AZA zoos. But our conservancy alone houses more big cats than the three N.C. AZA zoos combined, so we doubt they can offer homes to all. We are also unsure how this bill will affect our tigers currently on loan to one of these zoos.
We are equally concerned that wildlife sanctuaries would be forced to close if prohibited from engaging in commercial activities. Those offering tours could not charge admission, a critical source of income that supports the animals’ care.
Ending our own tour business would cause layoffs and economic ripple effects.
More than 14,000 visitors toured our conservancy in 2014, but that doesn’t benefit just our bottom line. This program, supporting our animals’ care, is also the main impetus for a $1.8 million impact on our region by the organization’s spending and because of visitors patronizing nearby businesses.
USDA licensing is required only for facilities engaging in commercial activity. Therefore, some that currently offer animal rescue services and public tours under a USDA license would no longer be inspected and licensed under this bill. But they could still continue housing animals and accepting new rescues! Who wants to live near an unregulated big-cat sanctuary?
This legislation would require at least $250,000 in liability insurance, which makes sense. But the required deductible is capped at $250 – which does not. That’s why such a policy doesn’t seem to actually exist. The state would have to compel insurance companies to make this coverage available, and the rates on a policy with these parameters would likely be prohibitively expensive. We currently carry a much larger policy with an appropriately higher deductible.
The effective date for the law does not allow time for compliance. Even with considerably more lead time, a similar bill in Ohio led to an unfortunate standoff: At least 10 confiscated exotic animals have been living in 200-square-foot indoor holding pens since January, fates hanging in the balance as lawyers sort out details not appropriately considered when the bill was written.
We strongly support appropriate regulation. But we cannot condone legislation that chokes licensed businesses out of existence, removes regulatory oversight from facilities that house large predators and potentially forces healthy animals to be euthanized.
An exemption for all USDA-licensed organizations is a critical starting point for a bill that actually protects public safety and ensures animal welfare.
Mindy Stinner is executive director and Julia Matson Wagner is assistant director at the Conservators Center in Burlington.
Find the bill and more information at ConservatorsCenter.org.