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Animal Welfare: Captive Wildlife

November 1, 2011

In both A Door into Ocean and The Highest Frontier, humans have to manage wildlife. But how should we do that? Should  private ownership  be allowed? How do we prevent what happened in Zanesville, Ohio?

My friend Frank Branchini,* with much experience of animal welfare, says:

“There are two huge issues regarding private ownership of captive wildlife:  animal welfare and safety.  There is little or no regulation of the care of captive wildlife under private ownership. Animals need veterinary care.  Who provides it for captive wildlife?

“There are no standards for cage size.  There are no standards for what kind of stimulation the owners need to provide for the captive wildlife. There are no standards to require owners to provide adequate heating from animals from the tropics that might be housed in Ohio, or adequate shelter from the heat for polar bears that someone might have in an outside enclosure during the summer.

“And the safety concerns are off the charts.  As we have seen, when these animals get out they are a huge threat to public safety.  I lived just three doors down from a park in Maryland in a densely populated suburban neighborhood.  That park is very heavily used by walkers, joggers, and dog walkers.  While I lived there someone who lived directly across the park from my house had a venomous Indian cobra which got loose.   It may have gone into the park.  Officials from the National Zoo said that it would not be safe to assume that the cobra would die outside during the winter, and if the cobra were pregnant there was a good possibility that cobras could establish themselves in the park.”

What regulations should there be for ownership of captive wildlife?

More links: Support the Captive Primate Safety Act, and ASPCE page on exotic animals.

*Frank Caesar Branchini has served as Executive of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Anne Arundel County, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County, Volunteer and Events Coordinator at Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, and Vice-President of the Professional Animal Workers of Maryland, and is a current member of the Board of Directors of Maryland Votes for Animals.  The views expressed are his own.

  1. alex tolley permalink
    November 2, 2011 12:32 am

    Why just private ownership, what about public? We’ve have zoos abandoned during crises before.

    To some extent, this is like worrying about terrorist attacks when road fatalities far exceed them. What is the probability of being hurt by a wild animal on the loose, compared to say, large dogs?

  2. November 2, 2011 10:57 am

    I tend to agree with Alex, that injuries from domestic animals far outweigh injuries from wild animals. Also, the most dangerous large wild animals in the US are deer, because of road accidents (and conversely, cars are the primary predators of deer in many regions).

    Still, there’s this allure in the word “exotic,” and I’ll admit from experience that it’s fun having a wild or feral animal as a pet. In my case, it’s things like one-winged morning doves and pigeons (broken winged rescuees), rather than, say, specially-bred pythons or tigers.

    For those who want to keep bigger and rarer animals, I’d suggest three things: license (so that the authorities know where the animals are, in case of disasters or emergencies), insurance (to pay for dealing with their release, with invasive and dangerous species being appropriately more expensive), and DNA or gamete samples on file in a local zoo/university/etc (for truly wild species, so that their genes aren’t lost to future attempts to save the species or reintroduce them). The fun part is what to do about people who can’t pay. Where do the animals go?

    Can we regulate appropriate pens? I don’t know, but we can try.

  3. gwionis permalink
    November 2, 2011 1:03 pm

    re: alex tolley, the form of your argument seems to be suggesting that saying “why are you worried about maintaining bridges, traffic accidents cause more deaths than unsafe bridges” would also be a valid argument. Just because one thing causes more harm total doesn’t mean that removing a different risk is automatically worthless.

    Of course, the difference between bridges and terrorist attacks is that there are fewer side effects to maintaining bridges and the effective steps for maintaining bridges are much better understood. There is very little trade-off involved in maintaining bridges, unlike trying to prevent terrorist attacks, which seems to be full of not only trade-offs but ineffective approaches that do more harm than good.

    In terms of exotic animals, there do seem to be trade-offs between public safety and freedom for everyone to own exotic animals. Unlike dogs, exotic animals are not domesticated, and in general one loose tiger/bear/cobra/etc. is far more dangerous than one loose dog. The difference is that there are more loose dogs, so they might cause more damage total, even if in general dogs are far safer. But would you rather live next door to a dog or a bear?

    • November 2, 2011 2:45 pm

      On the weight of the evidence from Zanesville and elsewhere, I’m not sure that a loose tiger/bear/cobra is more dangerous than a dog, at least in the US. I can remember at least three pit bull maulings this year in my town alone, and I think there’s been one bear attack in my state this year. The animals that escaped from Zanesville harmed no one before they were killed or captured.

      The same point holds with knives and guns. I suspect more blood is shed by knives than guns, simply because most people know guns are dangerous, and treat them with respect. Knives get used in kitchens every day, and people tend to think they are safe, even though they aren’t. People own tigers not because they are cuddly, but because they are dangerous. Dogs are more often owned because they are cuddly, even though they can be quite dangerous too.

      The bigger point is that people tend to have lousy judgement of risk. Where I live, they’ll evacuate a beach because of a shark sighting, but the cars used to drive people to and from that beach are more dangerous than the shark is, by any measure. One could argue that sending people away in cars actually increases their chance of injury, but that will never stop lifeguards from getting people out of the water when a shark’s around.

      • Frank Caesar Branchini permalink
        November 2, 2011 3:20 pm

        Dog attacks are a huge problem in the US. But there are an estimated 78 million dogs in the US. 39% of all US households contain at least one dog. Exotics are relatively rare. Allowing more of them will increase the risk and the hazards.

        Exotics include non-native species like cobras that could potentially establish themselves in our communities. This raises very serious environmental issues as well as safety issues. I’ve heard that in southern Florida there are feral colonies of escaped primates. These may have have come from research facilities but one has to wonder about the environmental impact of introduced non-native species.

        Allowing exotics does not thing to solve the issue of dangerous dogs and simply increases the risks to every one in the community.

        No one who cares about animals can be happy with the way the situation in Zanesville wound up. No people got hurt but almost all of the animals were slaughtered. And any one who cares about animals has to wonder about the care these animals received before this tragedy.

      • paws4thot permalink
        November 3, 2011 5:38 am

        In this case, keeping people out of the water when there’s a shark around is risk mitigation. Since we don’t live in a Hollywood B-movie or an xkcd strip, making them leave the foreshore is pointless.

    • alex tolley permalink
      November 2, 2011 4:39 pm

      Risk mitigation is not costless. Suppose we decided to regulate exotics ownership. There would be a bureaucracy granting permits and doing background checks, another overseeing facilities. That would require full time personnel, or at least extra paid time for existing personnel. And all to mitigate what level of risk – almost nothing. How much will you pay for marginal benefit?

      Wouldn’t we be better off using those resources to ensure better control of dogs?

  4. November 2, 2011 3:08 pm

    Captive wild animals add special problems, beyond those of dogs. The local police have standard procedures for dogs. They can’t be expected to know what to do with everything from tigers to cobras.

    Dogs and cats have been bred for thousands of years to coexist with humans. Wildlife has not. Special training and care are needed for captive animals to be healthy.

    I know it’s hard to believe, but people *do* own tigers because they’re “cuddly.” In our small town of Gambier, there was a farm called the Siberian Tiger Foundation, where they exhibited tigers and actively invited children to come pet them. Children were injured by the tigers. Still, the farm kept exhibiting tigers for many years before they shut down.

    It’s hard to say: Do we curb the creativity of people who want to raise iguanas, rare parrots, poison frogs? Does the size and intelligence level of the animal make a difference?

  5. alex tolley permalink
    November 2, 2011 4:08 pm

    Again, let’s look at the relative risks. Clearly dog attacks are far more of a risk to humans than zoo animals. Reducing dog attacks would be far more useful than reducing escaped zoo/exotic animals attacks.

    To follow the point heteromeles made about deer. In California, there are far more wild mountain lions, bears and even coyotes than all the comparable zoo species. Furthermore, they live in proximity to humans so that one can read about attacks on a regular basis. In Florida, houses are built along newly drained everglades and are subject to crocodiles wandering around. And of course, there are all the sharks in the ocean that result in a few attacks per year.

    So are risk level, from high to low is:
    Domestic dogs=>wild animals in proximity=>escaped zoo/exotic animals.

    So why focus attention on private zoos or collections?

    The environmental argument Frank makes has validity. However the US is already home to many exotics that were introduced in the past. We’ve learned (or not) to live with them.
    The exotics worry I have is not macro fauna that can be found, but sub-tropical pests and diseases that will migrate north as the globe warms. We could be talking about diseases that could take some toll on human lives as we have ignored their containment in the past. For sheer risk, bird flu would have made any additional wild animal attack risks just a rounding error.

  6. November 2, 2011 6:36 pm

    Hi Joan,

    I think it’s fair to ask people to post a large bond and take out insurance before they house a dangerous, exotic pet. The bond is there to pay for the damage if the animal gets out, and they can get it back when they sell the animal or it dies. I don’t think much of the insurance industry’s ability to limit risk well (mostly because I see what they do to western homeowners in the name of brush-clearing to reduce fire risk). Nonetheless, it’s not a bad idea to ask people to post some money in advance.

    I’d suggest this for a host of dangerous activities as well. Basically, if they can’t cover the fire and police response necessary if something goes wrong, the town has an interest in preventing them from doing it. In these days of shrinking budgets, that seems fair. It doesn’t matter if their hobby is breeding cobras, making large rocket ships, or moonshining, their right to pursue their hobbies stops where the neighbors get bitten or shrapneled.

    • alex tolley permalink
      November 2, 2011 7:04 pm

      Insurance and bonding will work for institutions. I am less sanguine for individuals. For small, but nasty animals, it is just asking for evasion. Then there is the issue of how dangerous. A baby alligator is safe, but if it grows to a few feet… And to cover Frank’s ecosystem point, an alligator is OK in Florida, a crocodile is not, and both are not OK in California.

      A while back, Tim O’Reilly lamented on his O’Reilly Radar blog that intrusive regulations and fear of damage was stifling the home chemistry experimentation hobby and that home biology (gene hacking?) was going to be difficult. We’ve seen the over cautious attitudes of authorities that deem almost anything “hazardous”, are throwing in potential “domestic terrorism” charges and billing people extraordinary amounts for raiding properties and disposing of “hazardous” material.

      I really do no want to encourage the authorities any further in this regard. I think the abuses could potentially end up worse than any release of of wild animals.

      • TashaG permalink
        November 3, 2011 4:28 pm

        There is actually a small population of Crocs that are native to Florida. Also Florida is having a huge problem with non-native species invading the everglades and then coming back into contact with the human population of the state. Things like Bermese Pythons (which can be VERY agressive) and some sorts of Monitor lizards. All of which have gained a foothold in the Everglades and are causing major problems for the native wildlife there.

        I would love to see mandatory microchipping of all exotic pets where possible. That way if these animals get loose we know who was supposed to be responsible for them. The importer would have to pay for the chip, and it would be mandatory for the new owner to update the registry for the chip.

  7. November 3, 2011 9:20 am

    It’s true that emergent diseases are a greater threat to the public than escaped wildlife. But captive or consumed wildlife are a major vector of emergent diseases, such as AIDS, SARS, and monkeypox (which could become a form of smallpox).

    I’m interested in the question of individual regulation. I see a few students who can’t manage glassware because they’ve never learned to deal with risky objects. But we don’t see the people who got maimed and blinded in childhood. I’ve never seen studies, although I know a man who was blinded in childhood when his brother blew chemicals into his eyes. We all accept “regulation” for activities like driving and aviation. Does ownership of animals fit that category?

    A deeper question relates to certain classes of animals, the megafauna with high intelligence. Do we owe special treatment to the apes, tigers and bears whose level of awareness approaches our own?

    • alex tolley permalink
      November 3, 2011 9:33 am

      “Do we owe special treatment to the apes, tigers and bears whose level of awareness approaches our own?”

      I think it is definitely arguable that we should no longer treat apes (and monkeys) the way we do. Experimentation should end and we should only keep them captive in high quality zoo environments, if we keep them in captivity at all. Unfortunately, the way things are going, their native habitats are just going to end up as limited preserves.

      But isn’t that an argument for freeing those very same primates who earlier were being deemed a problem if they escaped?

      • November 3, 2011 9:58 am

        The problem with “freeing” apes is that usually they have adapted to captivity and have no chance of surviving outside. That is why captive breeding programs are extremely involved, with gradual introduction to the wild. And freeing into human society–how does that work? How are they supposed to live?

        I am curious though about those “feral primates” in Florida that Frank mentioned. If that’s true, we could end up with a real dilemma, looking like Indian cities where the monkeys invade offices and collude with shopkeepers to trick tourists.

        It’s hard to realize that all “wilderness” that’s left consists of preserves, existing solely by government regulation; or by private, highly professional institutions. Kenya, South Africa, India and other governments maintain huge reserves that are basically parks. Indigenous peoples depend on the same–see the Nicobar islanders.

  8. November 6, 2011 9:21 am

    The problem is “ownership” of animals. A better model would be custody, and of course there should be different guidelines for the size and intelligence of each animal. Right now each family makes up such guidelines according to their own inclinations and the time available to them. I hate to argue for the kind of system that would have social services intervening if you neglect a parrot and cause him to pull out all his feathers and shriek, but what’s the alternative?

    • November 6, 2011 9:06 pm

      I wonder how far this will go. If we protect parrots and hamsters, what next? Arthropods? I’ve heard the argument that vertebrates deserve special consideration because they feel pain. But then they find that an octopus may be as smart as a cat. Will someone someday come looking at how I treat E. coli?

  9. November 8, 2011 2:58 pm

    It does make Buddhism seem more reasonable, doesn’t it, the idea that all sentient beings suffer? Heck, even plants emit chemicals when they’re disturbed, and these gases cause other plants nearby to ramp up their defensive chemicals. Why limit sentience to beings with nervous systems? Right now, legally, a fawn (or a feral pig) has more rights than a thousand year-old douglas-fir, but which one is more valuable to the place where it lives?

    IMHO, the start of the solution is mindfulness. We can’t avoid killing to eat, and we can’t avoid causing others to suffer, but we certainly can be aware of our actions. There is such a thing as needless suffering, and that we can certainly control.

  10. December 1, 2011 9:56 pm

    I agree with Heteromeles about mindfulness. Your question about E. coli reminds me of my friend who used to work with fruit flies. “No one ever complains,” she said. “Fruit flies have a very low Bambi quotient.”


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