Lions and Tigers and Bears, No More
This past January, a new South Carolina law came into effect, illegalizing the owning, purchasing, possessing, importing or selling of “a large wild cat, non-native bear [or] great ape.” South Carolina is now one of the 46 states that ban private possession of these exotic animals. Alabama, Nevada, Wisconsin and North Carolina are the only four states that do not regulate or restrict captive, dangerous wildlife.
This is a partial ban that allows the ownership of some exotic species, like snakes, and exempts “federally licensed zoos, circuses, research facilities, handles and exhibitors,” acknowledging that wildlife preserves are a prominent tourist attraction in South Carolina. This law, amending H.3531 of the South Carolina Code of Laws, is an effort to protect these species, but to also protect the citizens of the communities in which these wild animals are residing.
Local and Global Threats
Though South Carolina has not experienced any deaths on behalf of wild pets, there have been at least 10 cases of injuries as a result of these pets getting loose, according to the Humane Society’s South Carolina state chapter.
In 2009, a Pickens County woman attempted to pet a family member’s pet bear through its cage, resulting in surgery of her arm and hand. In 1991, a 250-pound lion escaped from his cage and attacked a 5-year-old girl, who ended up needing stitches in her neck and chest.
Around the country, the stories continue: In 2009, a pet chimpanzee in Connecticut mauled a woman, who later needed a face transplant. In 2011, a 4-year-old Texas boy was attacked by a pet mountain lion that escaped from its owner.
These situations are undoubtedly upsetting for the victims of these attacks, but also for these frustrated exotic animals, who typically end up being killed as a reaction to these situations in which they should never have been involved in the first place. Though the owners of exotic pets see these animals as ‘domesticated,’ the Humane Society recognizes that true domestication takes decades, sometimes centuries, and exotic pets will always have a natural instinct.
With exotic pets escaping or being released into the ‘wild’ by well-intentioned owners, ecosystems are also at risk of being damaged. Native species are then competing with foreign wildlife for resources and are in jeopardy of being exposed to diseases, like Herpes B, Salmonella, Moneybox, Ebola and Rabies.
On a grander scale, the exotic pet trade has played a large role in the decrease of the world’s wildlife. ‘One Green Planet’ states, “In the past 40 years, around 52 percent of the world’s wildlife has disappeared.” Sadly, there are fewer tigers in the wild than there are as pets. The exotic pet trade certainly affects the survival of these species, by placing them in an unfamiliar, unfit environment.
Grandfathered Exotic Pets
Born Free USA estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 large, wild cats are privately owned in the United States alone and these cats are part of a multibillion-dollar industry. So, the question arises – what happens to the exotic pets that are already in the hands of a private owner?
Persons in legal ownership of a large wild cat, non-native bear or great ape, may keep them for the remainder of their lives if they were in possession of these animals prior to January 1, 2018. However, they may not purchase any more and must comply with a few conditions. The owner must register with the city or county’s animal control in which the animal is located. Registration includes a contingency plan for the safe recapturing of these exotic pets as a precaution for first responders if the animal escapes, vet records and a fee (one-time fee of $500 per location in which the exotic pets are located, plus an additional $100 annual fee per pet). The owner must also met basic standards outlined under the Animal Welfare Act for exotic animal housing and care.
Giving Authority to Animal Control
In addition to banning these exotic pets and giving grandfathered rights to current owners, this new law gives animal control the authority to remove these pets from their current owner if the owner acquired the pet illegally, the animal poses an imminent danger to the public, or the animal is at risk of losing its own life as a direct or indirect result of its owner’s actions.
Any person in violation of the new law will now be fined no more than $1,000 or imprisoned no more than 30-days for a first offence, and fined no more than $5,000 or imprisoned no more than 90-days for a second offense.
Claire Roberson is the SPCA Albrecht Center’s Development Director. She is an Aiken native, but spent some college years in Charleston, interning with Charleston Animal Society. She is proud to be working in animal welfare in her hometown, surrounded by amazing, animal-loving supporters. She and her husband have a SPCA adopted black lab, Ozzy, a SPCA adopted Siamese mix, Luna, and Claire’s first love, Anakin, a 17-pound rescued Maine Coon mix.