(This column was first published in the April 8, 2002 Buffalo News.)
Our state legislature is currently considering a bill initiated by Assembly member Paul Tonko of Schenectady and co-sponsored by Erie County assemblyman Paul Tokasz that would prohibit the possession of many wild animals as pets. I believe that a bill regulating keeping animals that pose a danger to society is needed, but I strongly oppose the bill that is being considered. (To examine the bill and its current status, go to the NY State Senate website and call up Bill A7375-B.)
Of course few of us want Bengal tigers or crocodiles looking over or under our back fences. Keeping such animals and a wide variety of other dangerous pets calls for serious legislation and current laws are clearly inadequate. I therefore salute Tonko and Tokasz for addressing this problem and I agree with their initiative to "protect the public health and safety in relation to the possession of wild animals as pets."
Unfortunately, however, I believe that the complete prohibition that this draconian bill proposes, wrongly addresses the problem.
There are not, thank goodness, many lions and tigers kept as pets in this state, but a popular avocation here as elsewhere is keeping reptiles -- sometimes including poisonous species. With a one-brush-paints-all approach, this bill treats these animals in the same way it does large carnivores. I believe that the simple prohibition of these herpetological activities would have many bad effects, including driving some hobbyists into secrecy and as a result seriously exacerbating the associated dangers.
Consider, for example, the following scenario: When a law enforcement agent shows up at a cobra owner's front door, to avoid arrest the owner releases the snake out the back. None of the reptile hobbyists that I know would do such a thing, but a pet store in New York City some years ago released part of its inventory under exactly these conditions.
Of course, poisonous reptiles are dangerous; however, I have searched for (non-fiction) examples in this country of escaped reptiles biting people other than their handlers and I find none whatsoever.
Amateur as well as professional herpetologists extend our limited knowledge of reptiles. They belong to fine organizations like the national Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles and the local Western New York Herpetological Society. They publish research in excellent journals and books devoted to these little understood animals. I urge that their recommendations be taken into account.
They propose regulation instead of prohibition. Interestingly some of the sunset provisions already included in the Tonko bill support their ideas. To regulate those who keep dangerous reptiles they recommend such things as: Licensing with reasonable associated fees to cover administrative costs and very strict requirements including both classroom activities and a lengthy internship that must include reptile-handling skills. Substantial insurance liability coverage. Proof of access to antivenin for any species to be kept. Strict requirements for enclosures. A program of regular oversight including both reports and visits.
We have, it seems to me, models for this kind of regulation already in place. Hunting poses dangers and hunter safety courses have become a widely accepted part of the culture of outdoor recreation. The herpetologists' proposals go still further to protect the public -- and themselves. And we also have a state that has addressed these same problems. Florida has been a leader in developing needed controls on the possession of wild animals. (For information about their accomplishments, access the Florida Conservation commission website. An associated Florida antivenin depository has been set up in the Miami-Dade area.
I urge that the Tonka bill be carefully revised by a committee that would include those affected by it. Upon completion of their task this group might then form the nucleus of a permanent state-wide oversight board.-- Gerry Rising