Backyard Beasts: Is exotic animal ownership getting out of hand in Texas?
The relaxed laws in Texas regarding exotic animal ownership create an environment where people can not be sure of what animals their neighbors are keeping behind their fences.
Many people think of the backyards of Texas as containing animals such as dogs and cats and maybe some individuals take on the responsibility of more time consuming animals like horses, cattle or birds. However, for many Texans, this is not the case. We are entering a generation where exotic animals inhabit the backyards of our neighbors.
There are laws, but they tend not to be in place to regulate the sale and ownership of animals, but to document their existence.
Janice Castleberry of Lampasas, Texas is an exotic animal breeder who raises kangaroos, ring-tailed lemurs, civets and genets, which are small cat-like animals, and coatimundi, which look like a cross between a raccoon and a fox. She says that “licenses are easy to get as long as you comply with… [USDA]… regulations.”
“You just call the USDA headquarters in Denver and they send a representative to inspect your premises for proper housing and fencing,” Castleberry says.
This may seem like a responsible way to ensure that the people who own exotics care for them properly, but one must remember that this is implemented for breeders, not owners.
In the state of Texas “a person may not own, harbor, or have custody or control of a dangerous wild animal for any purpose unless the person holds a certificate of registration for that animal issued by an animal registration agency,” according to the Texas Health and Safety Code. “Dangerous wild animals” include lions, tigers, ocelots, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, bobcats, lynx, servals, caracals, hyenas, bears, coyotes, jackals, baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas or any hybrids of the listed animals.
Animals not listed as “dangerous wild animals” require no permit or registration.
Many people have been fighting for years for stricter regulations in Texas, especially since what has become known as the “Ohio massacre.” In October, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio, Terry Thompson released 56 wild animals then committed suicide. Because these animals, which included 18 tigers, 17 lions, as well as bears, cougars, leopards, wolves, baboons, and macaques, were no longer contained and free to travel through Zanesville, the police had no choice but to shoot and kill any animal that left the Thompson farm. By the time the situation was under control, 50 animals were killed. Only six animals, a grizzly bear, two leopards and three monkeys, survived.
The world was horrified by the bodies of animals that were lined up near the Thompson farm fence.
Ohio has since been passing laws making it more difficult to own exotic animals. The new laws require new and current owners to pay fees, pass background checks, show inspectors that their animals will be properly contained and cared for, obtain liability insurance, as well as microchip their animals.
Texas has no such regulations. This has created a booming market for exotic animals, to the point where one can simply open up the newspaper and find a monkey for sale.
Many Texas residents are unaware that the problem has escalated to the point where there are currently more tigers in private hands solely in the state of Texas than there are in the wild.
There are enough big cats in Texas, as well as incompetent owners, to have created a large demand for places like In-Sync Exotics, a big cat rescue in Wylie, Texas. Started by Vicky Keahey in 2000, In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue saves large cats from neglectful breeders, inept owners, roadside zoos and people who simply no longer have the time or money for their big cat.
“There are laws in place that are supposed to prevent all of this. The problem is that some of the officials don’t enforce them because if they did they would have to find homes for a lot of cats. Homes are very hard to come by,” Keahey says.
Peggy Brown, of Fort Worth, is the head of education and community outreach at the Humane Society of North Texas. Brown says, “Texas has some of the largest numbers of large exotic animal breeders, who then supply to the rest of the country.” Brown, like Keahey, has experience with the less glamorous side of exotic animal ownership.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had a tiger, two bears, three coatimundi and a bobcat who had been declawed.” The disappointment in Brown’s voice is apparent as she continues, “We have a kinkajou in quarantine right now who bit several people when we tried to catch it.”
The North Texas Humane Society supports the idea that exotic animal laws need to become more strict.
“Many cities in Texas have regulations on exotic animals, but once you get out into the country anything goes,” continues Brown. “I don’t think any individual can provide the proper enrichment, nutrition or housing these animals need.”