The tragic killing of a 22-year-old woman by a lion at the Conservators Center in Caswell County should serve as a wake-up call for lawmakers in North Carolina – one of only four states in the nation that still do not prohibit residents from owning dangerous wild animals.
The woman, an intern, was cleaning an enclosure at the privately run and unaccredited wild animal menagerie in late December when she was attacked by the lion. Law enforcement officers responding to the incident shot the lion in order to retrieve the young woman’s body.
As saddening as this incident is, what is even more sobering is the knowledge that it could have very possibly been avoided had lawmakers passed legislation to keep dangerous wild animals out of the hands of people not qualified to care for them, such as roadside zoos.
Since 1990, 24 people have been killed by captive big cats in the United States. In North Carolina alone, the Humane Society of the United States has documented several cases in which private ownership of wild animals resulted in deadly consequences. In Millers Creek, a 10-year-old boy was killed by his uncle’s tiger when the animal reached under the fence and dragged him into a cage as the boy was shoveling snow. In Wake County, a three-year-old was permanently blinded when his father’s tiger bit his head. In both cases, the tigers were shot and killed.
Wild animals kept as pets also pose other risks to the community, and drain local resources. Some species, such as primates, can spread deadly viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections, threatening human health. The animals are often purchased as babies, and there have been cases where owners simply turn the animals loose when they mature, becoming too dangerous and difficult to handle, or relegate them to backyard cages.
Local health departments, animal control and law enforcement have their resources stretched when responding to situations involving such animals, spending their time and precious taxpayer dollars cleaning up the messes made by irresponsible owners. For instance, after a chimpanzee pried back a steel bar on his cage and escaped from a Rockwell menagerie in 1997, animal control officers spent over 100 hours searching for the great ape. The chimpanzee was captured in a neighbor’s yard and returned to the property, but he broke free again and attacked a television news camera operator, causing severe injury and permanent damage to the man’s arm.
The needs of wild animals like bears, big cats and primates are very different from those of companion animals like dogs and cats – needs that cannot be met by unqualified individuals or in backyard menageries and pseudo-sanctuaries. In its 121-page manual for tiger care, for instance, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends large, complex outdoor space with natural substrates, pools, trees to allow nail grooming, and raised platforms. In contrast, many unaccredited roadside zoos keep big cats in small, barren concrete cages.
North Carolina lawmakers have had opportunities to pass legislation ending the private possession of dangerous wild animals, but they have continued to buck the trend set by other states, and failed to protect their citizens. With this latest case in Caswell County, there is renewed urgency and a fresh opportunity to correct the course. North Carolina should take action before more humans and animals are forced to pay with their lives.
Kitty Block is acting president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.
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