By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"This law in the next session is going to get turned around," he says. "We believe that some form of this law should be in effect, but the way it's written now it's unconstitutional, and we're raising money to challenge it because we can get it overturned very easily."
One of the problems with the law is that it ignored the fact that the USDA is already conducting regular inspections of operations such as his, which have Class C licenses. Terranova strongly disagrees that USDA-inspected facilities are the problem when it comes to accidents, and for that reason they should have been exempted the same way that zoos were exempted.
"We asked that they exempt all Class C exhibitors under the USDA. They said that you guys are causing all the problems," he says.
The law discriminates against smaller exhibitors by excluding them from exemptions and forces them to pay $10,000 to join the AZA or $50 per animal to license them in counties that allow it. Counties are being forced to decide whether to spend a lot of money to monitor exotic animals or ban them. Terranova says county commissioners most likely will choose the ban. Instead of being legislated out of existence, he says, responsible animal owners should be able to get an exemption the same way that USDA-licensed zoos are exempted. Exotic-animal owners opposed to the legislation suggested five qualifications with which an animal owner could be exempted from the law: a bachelor of science degree or equivalent experience; two years of species-specific experience; proof of at least $100,000 insurance; a contingency plan for escape on file with the sheriff's office; and regular USDA inspections.
"Nope, they wouldn't go for that," he says.
Legislators were misled into enacting the legislation by emotional testimony from those such as Villafana, Terranova says. Villafana's 10-year-old daughter's death was one of those caused by an irresponsible exotic-animal owner, he claims, and nothing in the new law would prevent that because there is no distinction between competent professionals and amateur exotic-animal owners.
"You cannot regulate stupidity. That tiger never escaped. No USDA laws were broken except for the fact that the parents let the child go in the cage. I've got all these locks now; I've got perimeter fences and everything. If I open the door and put my kid in there, no law changes the fact that I'm stupid."
Villafana may agree it was stupidity that killed his daughter, but he does not agree that less government oversight is good.
The owners of the tiger that killed Villafana's daughter were licensed by the USDA, as were owners of tigers that killed Matthew Scott and attacked Katie Baxter. Those people simply should not have been able to own the animals, he says. Trimble says agriculture department license holders were a big part of the problem the law was trying to solve.
"Many of these accidents were happening with animals owned by USDA license holders," he says. "We didn't want to just exempt these people. We wanted these people to be registered so the Texas public would know where these animals are. You may choose not to live in the vicinity of someone who has one. If they don't register, then you don't know that."
Those who have experienced an attack by a pet lion, tiger or gorilla and the like seem to agree the beasts make terrible and dangerous family pets. Bobby Hranicky, once an enthusiastic tiger owner, is among those who say they are not meant to be part of the family.
It was Hranicky's pet tiger that killed his stepdaughter, Villafana's daughter. Now he says he should never have been allowed to own tigers and few others should either. The only place anybody should see a big cat is from the safety of a well-run zoo, he says.
"We don't have them anymore, and we'll never own them again, and we'll never own another thing like that. It doesn't matter how good you are, how careful you are; the potential for accidents is just too great," he says. "Yeah, we need a lot more regulation...They need to have no contact with humans. They need to be in zoos. They need to be protected in wildlife refuges. I'm not saying they should be banned; I'm saying the regulation should be a lot tougher so private citizens can't have them."
Charlotte Scott buried her son in a little cemetery overlooking the greyhound ranch and the old tiger pen. At the Scotts' insistence, Quinney sent the tigers to a sanctuary. The family still lives on the greyhound ranch within eyesight of each other's houses and the graveyard on the hill. Scott says she thought about moving, but she preferred staying, taking some solace in the knowledge that Matthew loved it there so much. She is understandably shaken by what happened, but she is trying to move on; she is raising her other son, an infant, and is pregnant with what will be her third child, she says. She doesn't know if tougher laws would have saved her son, and she doesn't blame the four-year regulatory vacuum, her husband's stepfather or the tiger. She just misses her son.
"I can't even explain it," she says.