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Animal Attraction: Groups Petition USDA to Prohibit Public Contact with Dangerous Wild Animals

by Stacy Fox

Posted on October 19, 2012 at 7:26 AM

On the one-year anniversary of the Zanesville, Ohio, tragedy in which about 50 big cats, bears, primates and other animals were released from cages at a private menagerie, The Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries filed a legal petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prohibit public contact with big cats, bears and primates under the Animal Welfare Act.
Unscrupulous exhibitors in locations across the country house baby tigers, lions and bears to be handled and photographed by paying customers. After the baby animals outgrow their use as photography or play props, sometimes after just a few months, they are often discarded. Some of the animals end up being warehoused at shoddy roadside zoos, at pseudo-sanctuaries or in the hands of unqualified people like Terry Thompson, the man who released the animals in Zanesville. While public exhibition of exotic wildlife is regulated by USDA, public contact with the animals is largely unmonitored.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture must prohibit the public handling of these dangerous, wild animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “This cycle of breeding, exploiting, then dumping baby animals after a few months fuels the exotic pet trade, puts animals at risk, endangers the public, and creates a burden for both law enforcement and nonprofit sanctuaries.”
For fees ranging from $10 to $500, members of the public can pet, feed, train, pose with, play with and even swim with wild and exotic animals. To facilitate public handling, the animals are pulled from the nurturing care of their protective mothers shortly after birth—an inhumane and unhealthy practice that can lead to lifelong physical and psychological problems and even death. It is well established that primates raised in socially-isolated conditions develop self-destructive and aberrant behaviors, and the same issues apply to big cats and bears.
USDA regulations and enforcement policies allow harmful practice of handling infant animals to flourish, and encourage reckless breeding. For example, USDA guidance documents suggest that public contact with big cat cubs between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks is permissible, which not only creates an incentive for an endless cycle of tiger cub births, but also causes a surplus of captive adult tigers that are warehoused in roadside zoos and private menageries. USDA’s vague policies also threaten public safety, as exhibitors routinely allow public contact with their surplus of older tiger cubs. An HSUS undercover investigation at the GW Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma documented numerous instances of dangerous public contact with older tigers, including a September 2011 incident in which a 20-week-old tiger named Dre knocked down and bit a small child.
The coalition of seven groups is calling on the agency to issue revised regulations that prohibit public contact and close encounters with big cats, bears and primates, regardless of the age of the animals.
A patchwork of state laws govern the possession of dangerous wild animals and leave many communities vulnerable to tragedies like Zanesville. Nevada, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama currently do not have any restrictions on the private possession of dangerous wild animals.

The Humane Society of the United States