AR-News: Cat fight in Legislature over exotic 'pets'
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Mon Feb 9 18:23:38 EST 2004
Cat fight in Legislature over exotic 'pets'
Owners are growling about proposed ban
By M.L. LYKE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
SEDRO-WOOLLEY -- The Siberian tiger, 750 pounds of striped, jungle-stalking
royalty, dwarfs the man who pets him through sturdy fencing. The cat can't
purr, so he chuffs, little whoofs of greeting.
"You're hungry, aren't you, Timber?" asks owner Mike Jones as the big cat --
one of an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 privately owned tigers in America -- rubs
a massive head against the wire.
Grant M. Haller / P-I
Mike Jones, who lives near Sedro-Woolley, built a 6,000-square-foot pen
for his tiger Choi Hu. He fears lawmakers won't stop at the big-cat ban.
They've been together a long time, man and beast. Jones bottle-fed and
raised Timber and his 475-pound female companion, Choi Hu. When they grew
too big to be inside the house, he built each cat a deluxe 6,000-square-
foot pen, with $25,000 worth of fencing.
So the tiger man is none too happy about a bill in the Legislature that
would ban ownership of such exotic animals.
"If they get by with that with the big cats, what will be next? Selectively
picked dogs they'd like to see people not own?" asks Jones, who has a U.S.
Department of Agriculture exhibitor's permit and hopes to build a wild-cat
sanctuary on his 11-acre spread.
A number of Washington cities and counties already ban or restrict keeping
wild animals, including Pierce and King counties and the cities of Everett
and Bellevue. Okanogan County just adopted a ban on exotic species in
response to a feud between a woman with a pet lion and a tiger and neighbors
who said they feared for their safety and couldn't sleep for the
But outside spotty local regulation, there's no overriding law on exotic
animals in Washington, and some state legislators think there should be. At
least two dozen states have such bans or restrictions.
"It is very clear that ownership of these animals has created a real risk to
human health and safety," said the sponsor of the state bill, Rep. John
Lovick, D-Mill Creek.
Under House Bill 1151 -- which sponsors hope to get moved onto the Senate
floor soon -- owners of exotic animals would have five years to get rid of
their unusual pets. Then, unless an extension were approved, they would have
to "send them to a sanctuary, euthanize them or move out of state," said
Jennifer Hillman, legislative coordinator for the Progressive Animal Welfare
Society of Lynnwood, which introduced the bill.
It's the fourth time around for exotic-pet legislation in this state. But
bill sponsors say a rash of news stories -- what wild-animal owners call
"bad press" -- has heated up the issue across the country.
Recent headline-makers include a New York man with a quarter-ton tiger he
kept cramped in his Harlem apartment, and Las Vegas magician Roy Horn of
"Siegfried and Roy," who was pounced upon by a tiger in front of a horrified
audience. In North Carolina, two well-publicized tiger attacks in the last
two months -- one a fatal mauling of a 10-year-old -- have prompted new
discussions of a ban.
Owners of exotic animals in Washington have lobbied hard against the
proposal, which would prohibit owning such animals as tigers, lions,
cougars, bears, wolves, alligators and non-human primates.
And the bill has lost some of its bite as it has moved through the
legislative process. That includes expensive enforcement provisions, which
would be difficult to apply; with no registration system, the only way to
trace exotic animals may be if they escape or cause concern.
Several animals have been dropped from the bill, including iguanas,
non-venomous snakes and, recently, most medium-size wild cats, such as
lynxes, bobcats and servals -- cats not permitted as pets in Seattle. "We
couldn't convince state legislators they were as dangerous as they are,"
She cites the case of a Bainbridge Island woman whose serval -- a tawny,
spotted African wild cat with oversized ears -- saw her toddler running
across the room and pounced, grabbing the girl by the throat. Luckily, her
daughter was OK. The cat was turned over to PAWS.
"That's how we got into the issue," Hillman said.
Grant M. Haller / P-I
Peter Harrett shows off a caracal, a cat found in Asia and Africa. He says
private owners are the best hope for saving some species. Others argue that
profit is the main motive of such breeding.
The exclusion of medium-sized cats doesn't appease Peter Harrett, a vocal
opponent of the legislation.
"It's still a crummy bill," said the lumber-import business owner. Harrett
keeps some 40 breeding wild cats in pens at his 5-acre property outside
Arlington. He and his wife, Traci, sell the pricey kittens -- $2,500 for a
Siberian lynx, $1,250 for a bobcat -- to buyers worldwide via the Internet.
Inside their USDA-inspected pens, big, sleek, sinewy cats with strange
tufted ears, striking markings and watchful green and golden eyes let loose
a low guttural rumble of moans and mews, growls and grunts, as Harrett talks
about the attempt at legislating exotic animals.
"As long as the animals are in good pens, are not jumping over fences and
eating neighbors, people should have the right to own whatever pet they
want," said Harrett, who argues breeders of wild animals are helping save
threatened and endangered species.
"Tigers will be extinct in the wild before 2020 if there's a bill opposing
people keeping them in their backyards, homes, ranches, farms or breeding
facilities like ours," he said. "The last best hope we have ... is for them
to be domesticated."
Opponents dismiss such arguments, countering that the genetics of such
animals are rarely pure and that, in any case, owners are not breeding them
to return them to the wild, but to be sold for profit as house or backyard
Some bill supporters would put "pet" in quotation marks. Wild animals are
just that, they say: wild.
Grant M. Haller / P-I
A lynx peers from a cage on the Arlington-area property where Peter
Harrett breeds exotic cats.
Even when owners bottle-feed them, neuter and spay them, defang them, and
declaw them -- an act one exotics veterinarian refers to as "brutal toe
mutilation" -- a wild cat's predatory instincts can kick in, especially in
an aggressive animal.
"One can attempt to 'socialize' or 'tame' a wild animal by raising that
animal among humans," said Hillman of PAWS. "However, that is not
domestication, and despite this social interaction, wild animals will always
possess their natural instincts and can and will use them at any given
Many owners and animal specialists argue that problems are usually a matter
of common sense (no human babes and wild cats in the same room) and proper
care (feed 'em meat -- organs, bones and all). It's the human, not the
animal that makes the difference, they say.
Tiger man Jones has had only one tangle with his cats, when the female Choi
Hu threw an adolescent fit. "Big cats give plenty of warning when things go
sour. ... You just don't do stupid things -- like turning your back on
them," said the Skagit Valley pipefitter, who has owned exotic animals since
he was a small boy -- tarantulas, monkeys, skunks, snakes, emus, ostriches.
The attraction of humans to wild animals is a long, often mystifying one.
Douglas Yearout, a local exotic-zoo-avian wildlife veterinarian, said it can
be like buying a strange new car. "People can be fickle and faddish."
After 24 years in the field, he has seen wild animals in inadequate caging,
nursing babies snatched from moms to imprint on humans, and inexperienced
owners who too quickly lose interest in their rare and time-consuming pets.
It's why he, too, supports a statewide ban on raising, importing and selling
certain exotic species.
But he doesn't like the idea of a heavy-handed political ban with poorly
thought-out regulations that can't be enforced. He also doesn't want to see
animals destroyed, and he doesn't want responsible owners to lose their
He has seen the passion humans can have for a wild animal.
Owners of wild cats like that edge, what they call "spunk." True, their
charges open doors and refrigerators, lap up all the water in the toilet,
take a flying leap to join them in the bathtub, and, if not declawed, climb
curtains and destroy wallpaper. One woman said her wildcat runs off with her
clothes whenever she gets dressed.
But the pampered predators also snuggle, frolic and can be trained, learning
to play Frisbee and walk on leashes.
Pat Lovelace, a Snohomish County mortgage broker, paid a bargain $1,500 for
her serval, named Jasa. "My friends said, 'Oh my God! It's going to eat
you,' " she said, laughing.
Now she and her dachshund, house cat and little kitten sleep with Jasa, who
has been through dog obedience training and has learned to sit, stay and
Lovelace said she's fully, always aware that Jasa is wild. "You can never
forget it," she said. "When a 20-pound cat leaps eight feet in the air over
your head -- that's a big deal."
But owning one, she said, is like nothing else.
"It's absolutely awesome."
P-I reporter M.L. Lyke can be reached at 425-252-2215 or
m.l.lyke at seattlepi.com
"I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species."
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
"Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding."
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