By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The parks department originally petitioned the Legislature for relief from exotic-animal oversight because, department officials said, exotic animals weren't really wild. They were caged. Officials also said the department was ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the oversight of exotic animals. It was a public safety issue best handled by local law enforcement.
Legislators agreed and repealed provisions that made the department responsible.
Lawmakers informally turned regulatory authority over to both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to counties. But financially strapped counties did not pick up the job where the state left off. They left the regulatory mission in rural Texas solely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects caged exotic animals and their living conditions.
"As it turned out, the USDA doesn't really make their license holders [comply with] stringent rules about caging standards," Trimble says. "They do about animal health, but they didn't about animal caging standards."
The USDA only inspects if the animal owner holds what is known as a Class C exhibitor's license, and even then inspectors are interested only in animal welfare issues. So, once Texas absolved itself of any regulating authority, there was nothing to stop anyone outside a city's jurisdiction from buying, selling, breeding or keeping lions or tigers or any other relatively easy-to-obtain wild animal.
The animals aren't too difficult to get, people familiar with the business say. Lions, tigers, monkeys and many other types of animals usually found in zoos often are available from independent breeders at roadside attractions, in classified advertisements and even on the Internet. On the Internet, bobcats, cougars and Bengal tiger kittens can be found for sale or trade. One site, Exotic Animal Finder, helps match up buyers and sellers. On Exotic Animal Finder's home page, above a photograph of an adult lion, it says, "Just one of the many animals we can locate for you."
Pat Hoctor, an advocate of exotic-animal ownership and owner of the Animal Finder's Guide, a publication that caters to those who own exotic animals, concedes that lions, tigers and other animals are available, but, he says, so are other dangerous things that might be improperly obtained.
"It's not that easy to find them, but yes, I'm sure if you really, really wanted to and really hunted hard and were willing to travel, you could probably find a tiger cub somewhere to buy. I'm sure you could do the same thing with a lion cub," he says. "But I also think that if you tried really, really hard, you could find an illegal gun to buy or illegal narcotics...and you probably wouldn't have to travel out of the city that you reside in."
Under the new law that took effect September 1, a county can make a choice to ban the exotic animals or direct the sheriff's office to establish a regulatory authority. In counties that allow exotic animals, an owner must comply with all sorts of new regulations. The list of animals in the exotic category includes lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas and others.
An owner must obtain a $100,000 insurance policy that would pay for death, damage or injury done by an animal. Caging has to comply with structural standards prescribed by the Texas Department of Health. Owners must care for the animal in accordance with standards set forth in the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Once an owner complies with those conditions, he can get a certificate, which must be filed with the state. That will provide a better count of the legal exotic animals in the state and will make all exotic-animal locations public knowledge. Trimble says the new legislation allowed some exemptions, such as for medical research facilities, animal mascots, state or city zoos, movie production companies and others.
The legislation further allows county authorities to ignore any type of exemption if they choose and to regulate or prohibit any animal they decide is too dangerous.
Trimble says he is conducting an informal poll of county commissioners courts to determine which have decided to ban exotic animals. Dallas and Tarrant counties both enacted bans with exemptions for certain types of animal owners. He has yet to hear from about 75 of the 254 Texas counties but says most that have responded opted for the outright ban.
"Many, many counties, particularly the smaller counties, have taken that option," he says. "Most of them are out and out just saying they are banned period, and they don't make an exception for whether it's an AZA [American Zoo and Aquarium Association] zoo or Baylor University or anything. They just say they are out of here. I would say that's the overwhelming majority."