Maryland Bill Would Ban Exotic Pets

Animal lovers are taking sides over proposed legislation that would prohibit people in Maryland from owning several species of wild animals as pets.

The proposed list includes crocodiles, caimans, large cats, non-domestic dogs, poisonous snakes and monkeys. Even the organ grinder's monkey.

"Don't make the mistake," Richard Farinato of the Humane Society of the United States told legislators Tuesday, "just because it sits on somebody's shoulder and dances when he turns the crank doesn't mean it isn't going to rip your face off, to be perfectly blunt."

Opponents of the legislation, drafted by Del. Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George's, said the bill could hurt legitimate businesses and hobbies such as zoos and cat breeders' associations.

Richard Hahn, director of the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo near Thurmont, Md., said the state shouldn't get involved at all, but leave it to the counties to draft their own rules.

"There's no need for a sledgehammer," Hahn said, "when you can use a tack hammer to tack it down."

Farinato said the state legislation was necessary to protect animals and humans from wild pets.

"There's never a safe moment," Farinato said, "when you're walking your bobcat, your mountain lion, your tiger, your macaque, or taking your crocodile out for a swim in your pool, there's never a safe moment when you're doing things like that."

The proposed bill provides exemptions for legitimate exhibitors such as zoos and circuses, as well as research facilities, and Menes said it was designed to target people who keep the animals as pets and allows a grandfather clause to exempt current pet owners from the ban. Menes introduced similar legislation last year, but it was withdrawn. Menes said she had been working with stakeholders preparing for the coming session.

Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, said that while incidents are infrequent, animal control officers have had to deal with a few big cats owned by private citizens in Carroll, including a lion in someone's basement, putting officers and owners at risk.

Ratliff said the owners of the basement lion were happy to see it go.

"It was no longer a kitten," she said. "It was no longer friendly. It was going to eat that family."

Legislators and opponents expressed concern about amendments in the proposed bill to allow animal control officers to seize animals if they believe the animals are in violation.

Sal Vitale, president of the International Bengal Cat Society, said field officers lack the training to distinguish between legal pets and some that would be banned under the proposed bill, and a tougher standard should be applied to avoid wrongful seizure.

"When you get into belief," Vitale said, "you're talking about smoke."

Vitale said Bengal cats, a hybrid between domesticated cats and the wild Asian Leopard Cat, need to be bred with their wild cousins occasionally to prevent inbreeding. He praised Menes for including an exemption in the latest proposal for cats under 30 pounds, but said it still needed work.

Farinato, who directs the Captive Wildlife Protection Program for the Humane Society, expressed concern not only about danger to human and to the animals themselves, but said diseases from exotic pets could jump species, infecting humans

"Wild animals carry a number of different diseases and sicknesses that are transmittable to human beings," he said. And while cases of transmission may be rare, "What you're doing is playing Russian roulette . . . you can't be sure what [the animal] is carrying, you can't be sure what its going to do."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.