November 16, 2013

Exotic pet shelters: Wildly risky business

A big cat keeper’s death renews calls to regulate shelters and curtail the exotic pet trade.

By Gosia Wozniacka
The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Over the past few decades, as an exotic pet trade boomed and Americans bought cute tiger cubs and baby monkeys, sanctuaries sprang up across the nation to take care of the animals that were abandoned when they reached adult size or were no longer wanted.

click image to enlarge

Lions roar at In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Education Center in Wylie, Texas. Because of the boom in the exotic pet trade over the last few decades, many big cats and other wild animals are now housed in sanctuaries. Keepers can be attacked, even at the most safety-conscious shelters.

The Associated Press

The growth in both the number of wild cats as pets and the sanctuaries that rescued them has led to attacks.

Since 1990, more than 20 people have been killed by captive big wild cats at sanctuaries, zoos and private residences, more than 200 people have been mauled and 200-plus wild cats have escaped, according to one of the nation’s largest wild cat sanctuaries.

The latest death is head keeper Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, who was killed by a cougar at an Oregon sanctuary last week.

Experts say that because sanctuaries are largely unregulated and anyone can open one, there are no uniform safety protocols.

And overconfidence or human error can lead to tragic consequences even among the most experienced of caretakers.

“It’s a risky business when you’re dealing with dangerous wild animals. You can’t leave any room for error,” said Vernon Weir, director of the Nevada-based American Sanctuary Association which certifies sanctuaries.

For decades, exotic animals have been imported into the U.S. and openly bred for the pet trade. Despite new laws that limit the trade in some states, people can easily buy an African rodent, a chimpanzee, or a baby leopard at a flea market or over the Internet.

Experts estimate the U.S. exotic pet trade is a multibillion-dollar industry. Hundreds of sanctuaries have opened throughout the U.S.

About 80 sanctuaries currently house big cats, the International Fund for Animal Welfare says. Only a dozen of them are certified or verified by two certifying organizations, the American Sanctuary Association and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

There’s little governmental oversight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, licenses facilities that exhibit animals – whether domestic or wild – or do research. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracks endangered species when they are bought and sold across state or U.S. borders and issues permits to facilities moving animals across state lines.

But neither agency keeps a tally on facilities or the total number of wild animals that are housed. And no one sets rules for how sanctuaries operate.

As a result, safety procedures meant to protect staff and animals vary. Most sanctuaries develop their own protocols. The two certifying associations require safety standards, but in most cases don’t define specific rules.

WildCat Haven, the Sherwood, Ore., sanctuary where the head keeper was killed on Nov. 9, was “verified” by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Verification means the sanctuary satisfied 60 different standards, including safety.

The organization recommends “redundancy” when it comes to safety, its executive director Patty Finch said, meaning two lockout doors or two staff members present. “It won’t eliminate the risk factor, but can certainly reduce it,” Finch said.

Still, she said, risk is inherent in the job. “You can have the best protocols in the world and something can still go wrong.”

WildCat Haven has good safety rules in place, Finch said.

Its safety manual specifies that a staff member can enter the main enclosure to clean or make repairs only after the animals are locked away in a smaller cage. Two people must be present when animals are locked up. And a caretaker can’t be alone with an animal in the same space.

Sanctuary officials said Radziwon-Chapman apparently broke those rules: she worked alone, locked only one of three cougars in the smaller cage, and went into the main enclosure with the other two cougars.

(Continued on page 2)

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