A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The right to own pythons, tigers, chimps and other exotic pets depends on where in the US you live. The legal US wildlife industry doesn’t get much national attention unless someone is hurt, an exotic pet gets loose or an ecosystem is damaged. A new report links Burmese pythons released in the Florida Everglades to the severe declines of in the region’s mammals. In Ohio police shot and killed dozens of exotic animals including wolves, lions, and bears reportedly set free by their distraught owner. As some fight for more regulation, breeders, brokers and owners of exotic pets say they are being unfairly targeted. Guest host Susan Page and a panel discuss battles over the legal wildlife trade.
- Tim Harrison director of Outreach for Animals, and advocate group for proper behavior around wildlife
- Zuzana Kukol president and co-founder of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership (REXANO)
- Andrew Wyatt president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers
- Wayne Pacelle President and C.E.O. of the Humane Society of the United States
Last fall, Ohio Police killed 49 exotic animals set free by their distraught owner. A recent report says Burmese pythons released into the Florida Everglades are causing severe declines in the regions mammals. This type of reports has brought scrutiny to the exotic pets industry. Guest host Susan page and our guests take a look at different arguments concerned with balancing personal rights, public safety, and environmental health.
Differences Between Exotic Animals And Other Pets
The Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle noted that the most common domesticated pets, like dogs and cats, belong in our homes, enjoy our companionship, and are capable of being trained. Tigers, large predatory animals, constricting snakes, and other exotic pets don’t, he said. “There are no good outcomes for these animals,” he said. “They almost always end up injured or dead or relinquished.”
Exotic Pet Owners Speak
Zuzana Kukol of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership has owned exotic cats and thinks ownership of such animals should be regulated no differently than that of domestic pets. Andrew Wyatt, of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, has also owned snakes and pointed out that not all reptiles are “exotic.” Wyatt admits that Burmese pythons and other invasive species are a big problem in the Florida Everglades, but he believes the problem is fairly limited.
Effect Of Animals On Environment “Devastating”
Pacelle disagrees with Wyatt and argues that advocates like Kukol and Wyatt “want to protect the right of private citizens to have dangerous predatory animals in their homes, even if they’re causing ecological havoc, even if they’re causing public safety threats, and even if the animals themselves are enormous victims of this trade,” Pacelle said. Kuzol said that the number of people killed in the U.S. by exotic animals – about 3 per year – is much less than that of people killed by dogs, horses, and many other domesticated animals.
Wildlife Advocates Weigh In
A caller named Chet from Georgia, who is the executive director at the Georgia Wildlife Rescue Association, said that he has heard reports of what sounds like either an anaconda or a python in his state. He said that the snakes do seem to be moving further north and he has a sense that the problem might not be as well-contained as Wyatt believes. Chet has owned exotic snakes himself, but he does have reservations about anyone being able to enter a pet shop and purchase a snake that will eventually grow up to be enormous and potentially difficult to feed, handle, and care for.
You can read the full transcript here.
Zuzana Kukol, of Rexano:
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is at a memorial service for Tony Blankley, a dear friend and frequent guest on "The Diane Rehm Show." Last fall, Ohio Police killed 49 exotic animals set free by their distraught owner. A report out this week says Burmese pythons released into the Florida Everglades are causing severe declines in the regions mammals. This type of reports has brought scrutiny to the exotic pets industry.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining us in the studio to discuss this issue, Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States and Andrew Wyatt of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers. And joining us from a studio in Las Vegas, Zuzana Kukol of a group called Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. WAYNE PACELLEThank you.
MR. ANDREW WYATTThank you very much.
PAGEWe're going to invite our...
MS. ZUZANA KUKOLThank you.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation just a bit later. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Wayne, first of all, how many exotic pets are there? How big a thing is this across the country?
PACELLEWell, we're not really sure. And there are so many different species of exotic pets. There are people who keep lions, tigers, mountain lions and other big cats. There are people who keep bears. The man in Ohio Terry Thompson had -- there were 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, there were grizzly bears, almost all of them killed when he let them out. There are people who have all sorts of primates. Some people still have chimpanzees even though they're an endangered species in the wild.
PACELLEThere are folks who have large constricting snakes, whether it's green anacondas or Burmese pythons. There are people who have alligators, crocodiles. And I think, you know, there are people who actually are quite interested in these animals. They're drawn to the exotic. They're drawn to these animals for some reason. But we don't think they should have them in their households as pets. Certain animals are domesticated. Dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years.
PACELLEThey belong in our homes. They enjoy our companionship. And generally speaking, they don't pose enormous risks to us and they are capable of being trained and of being obedient to some degree. Tigers, you know, are not that way, and so many of these animals are large, powerful predatory animals. They don't belong in our homes, not just as a matter of safety for us, for safety for them, too. There are no good outcomes for these animals. They almost always end up injured or dead or relinquished.
PAGENow, Zuzana, you are an exotic pet owner yourself. Is that right?
PAGEAnd so, tell us what animals you have yourself?
KUKOLWe own exotic cats, everything from small bobcat to Africa lion. Then we have wolf hybrids and we have reptiles.
PAGESo, we heard Wayne kind of make the case for raising concerns about these exotic pets. Why do you want to have them? What's the appeal?
KUKOLThe question is why not? If we asked American citizens can choose what type of domestic pet we can have, what car to drive, what house to buy, why should exotic animals be treated any different?
PAGEWell, Andrew Wyatt, I know that you have some exotic pets yourself. What do you have?
WYATTWell, I don't keep many animals anymore because of my work for our trade association and travel. So, I have surrogates keeping the animals that I used to keep.
PAGEWhat did you use to have?
WYATTI have had a number. You know, there's a little bit of disconnect here. Not all reptiles are exotic. Much of the trade in reptiles in the United States are animals that are native to the United States, like milk snakes and king snakes, which I've worked with all of those and as well as boas and pythons.
PAGENow, we've seen this report just out a few days ago about Burmese pythons released into the Florida Everglades, causing some ecological problems. Tell us about this study. What did it conclude?
WYATTAre you speaking of the recent study that was just published?
PAGEThat's right. The one published just, I guess, on Monday.
WYATTWell, I think that the press and the media got quite carried away with the press release and actually reported a number of things that are not detailed in the paper in the paper at all. They're trying to draw some direct correlation of Burmese pythons in the Everglades and the decline in mammal populations. And in the paper, there is no direct causation linked to the Burmese python. It's speculative. And there are numerous studies out there that have been done in regards to mammal declines and bird declines in the Everglades that are linked back not to the Burmese python but back to hydrology and high levels of mercury.
PAGEDo you think that -- now, first of all, how do these pythons from Burma get in to the Florida Everglades?
WYATTBack in the early '90s, there was a facility on the edge of the Everglades that was devastated and destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, releasing a bunch of Burmese pythons that were pretty much all genetically the same. That's why you see when you look at the genetics of the pythons that are feral in the Everglades, they all come from the same genetic stock. They're virtually identical and that was because of a massive release of very similar animals during Hurricane Andrew.
PAGESo you think they're not a problem, it's not a problem to have these pythons in the Everglades?
WYATTWell, I think that the pythons in the Everglades, as well as other more invasive and more dangerous animals to the environment or the Everglades are a problem. You know, feral cats have wreaked havoc on not only birds and reptiles and small mammals, but they've spread disease. There's millions of them in every single state in the union, yet there doesn't seem to be quite the concern of the impact, the massive impact that they have not only all over the United States, but all over the world. Now, the pythons are certainly -- alien pythons in the Everglades are certainly a problem, but it has been limited to three counties in the very southern tip of Florida.
PAGESo this study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's got a fair amount of attention. Wayne, what's your view of its conclusions?
PACELLEWell, let me just say, Susan, again, thank you for having me from the Humane Society of the United States on. And it's good to be on with Andrew and Zuzana. And I just want listeners to understand, Andrew and Zuzana are advocates of the exotic pet trade. They have fought regulations at the federal level and the state level to restrict private ownership of these animals. So, a lot of titles are a little confusing. Like USARK, Animal Reptile Keepers, that sounds like a nice thing.
PACELLEThese are exotic animal owners who want to protect the right of private citizens to have dangerous predatory animals in their homes, even if they're causing ecological havoc, even if they're causing public safety threats, and even if the animals themselves are enormous victims of this trade. Now this report that just came out, it was just reported on in the Washington Post yesterday and in other papers throughout the country is devastating, just on the single question of the ecological impact of one species of large constricting snakes, the Burmese pythons.
PACELLEThe report said that these scientists, again, these are top scientists in the field reporting in a peer-reviewed journal said that populations of raccoons in the areas where Burmese pythons are dropped 99 percent compared to 13 or 14 years ago before pythons colonized the Everglades. Possums also dropped 99 percent and bobcats 87.5 percent. Marsh cottontail rabbits as well as foxes were not seen at all.
PACELLENow, let's remember that the South Florida Water Management District proposed listing nine species of large constricting snakes on the list of injurious species, only because of the threat on the ecology of Florida and other southern states. USARK and other organizations fought this, delayed the enactment of it, and the Obama administration caved in and listed only four of the nine species that the scientists from the U.S. Geological Service said should be listed.
PACELLEThis report makes it plain where the right and wrong positions were. This is a devastating circumstance for the Everglades, where our nation has put billions of dollars to protect one of the most sensitive and critical habitats in the southern tier of the United States.
PAGEAndrew, we saw this decision by the Obama administration in the middle of January to ban imports of four snake species. Was that the right thing to do?
WYATTWell, you know, there's certainly not the science there to support that decision out of hand. The scientists from around the world have criticized that work as not scientific and not suitable as the basis for legislative or regulatory changes. They've had a lot of problems with the science. Their data set is not accurate. The conclusions drawn are quite big leaps. And that's one of the problems they've had is that they have not had strong basis for science to push the rule forward.
WYATTIt's also important to remember, Mr. Pacelle says that we've spent a lot of time advocating for the responsible ownership and trade as well as animal welfare of reptiles. That is true. But our annual budget is literally just a fraction of his postage stamp budget. And the fact is he spent somewhere in the neighborhood -- over the period of 2005 to 2009, he spent over $17 million lobbying Congress to advocate for...
WYATT...limited animal ownership, you know? And it's...
PACELLEIt's actually much broader than that, Andrew. It's anti-dog fighting, it's combating puppy mills, it's combating factory farming. It's restricting private ownership of primates and other animals. I mean, let's remember, Susan, you know, we're not just talking about snakes. I mean, Andrew is a snake enthusiast. I mean, that's fair to say that you're a snake enthusiast.
PACELLEWe're talking about a larger category of animals. You know, when we're talking about chimpanzees, the woman in Connecticut had her face bitten off and her digits bitten off by the these animals.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk more about the laws in states that restrict these kind of animals and the states that choose not to restrict them. We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and read some of your emails. Shoot us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking this hour about the issue of exotic pet ownership in this country. And we're joined now by phone from Dayton, OH by Tim Harrison. He's with a group called Outreach for Animals. He trains first responders on how to deal with exotic pets and their owners. Tim Harrison, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. TIM HARRISONThanks for having me.
PAGESo how did you get interested in this area?
HARRISONI got interested back when I worked for a veterinarian back in 1970s. We'd go out and every once in a while somebody'd get a python in their backyard or a bear tied up in the back -- you know, back in somebody's barn. But after 1995 it like exploded when reality TV started. Everybody started bringing the most dangerous creatures in their home 'cause they wanted to imitate what they saw on TV. Monkey see, monkey do. Like I say, Susan, remember 101 Dalmatians. When that came on everybody bought a Dalmatian.
PAGEYou know, I know that you were involved in the response in Zanesville, Ohio, that terrible incident last fall where dozens of exotic animals were released by their distraught owner. Tell us what happened there from your perspective.
HARRISONFrom my perspective, a gentleman got out of prison and he decided -- he was distraught, there was no question about that -- he decided to turn all his -- you know, 50 of the most dangerous creatures on the planet loose. And it was right next to Zanesville, Ohio, right next to major Interstate 70. Turned them loose, cut the cages so you couldn't put them back in. And then he poured blood over his own body, laid down and shot himself in the head. So he actually set up a semi-booby trap for the first responding officers to come out. They had to go in and get him so they had to actually shoot the animals to get to his location.
PAGEWell, that was a terrible story. In Ohio what's been the aftermath of that case?
HARRISONWell, they're working right now -- Governor Strickland actually had his very strong executive order that was supposed to have been signed May 1, 2011. But Governor Kasich, the new governor came in, surrounded himself with the wrong people, believed the hype that you're getting from the other two guests you have on your show that nothing's going on out here, there's no problems, just leave it alone. And he ended up dropping the executive order.
HARRISONAnd the sad part about that is now he's got his arm almost twisted behind his back. He has to do something now. The whole world is watching what's going on in Ohio.
PAGEFor Governor Kasich.
HARRISONThat's correct. That's exactly right.
PAGEYeah. And so in -- for first responders what advice do you give them when it comes to dealing with exotic animals when they get a call?
HARRISONWell first of all, there's no way to teach anybody any of this stuff. I teach for Homeland Security out of Texas A & M College at a place called Disaster City, the top training facility in the world for governors and, you know, government officials and fire chiefs and police chiefs. It's impossible to teach a group of people like that how to, you know, go into or respond to a home. You've got to remember, every time there's a dangerous exotic animal situation, like the chimpanzee in Connecticut or me catching a cougar in downtown Dayton, it's always the cops that are first, always.
HARRISONRemember the San Francisco Zoo situation where the tiger got out, killed the boy, seriously injured the other two kids there. And it was the police they called in to have help. So when the professionals have a hard time handling these animals why was it an untrained people should be allowed to have them in their homes?
PAGEAnd why do you think they want to have them in their homes? I know you just talk with exotic pet owners when you're called in to deal with situations that become troublesome. What do you think the appeal is?
HARRISONI think the main appeal is that they see it on TV -- now this is an American phenomenon. I travel all over the world and lecture. You don't see it in India, you don't see it in Africa, you don't see it in Australia. They respect their wildlife. We've got a situation here. We have TV shows constantly bombarding people telling them it's okay to bring a surgically altered animal as you see on TV or a medicated one on there that's taken something that'll take the edge off.
HARRISONAnd that's what they think the tiger's going to be like when they buy it. Bring it home and they get a baptism in reality real quick, Susan, that this animal doesn't act like the one on TV. It's got its claws and it's going to hurt me. And the sad part about that is you can buy a tiger, Susan, but you can't buy common sense.
PAGEAnd, Tim Harrison, one last thing. What -- you've been involved in so many of these cases, what's the most dangerous animal that you've been involved in trying to bring under control?
HARRISONYeah, I've lost friends from -- one friend was killed by a Burmese Python. I had another friend killed by a venomous Rhinoceros Viper in his own home here in the State of Ohio. But the most dangerous, Susan, is chimpanzees by far. And I just helped remove a chimpanzee here from the Centerville area of Ohio. So the sad part about it is they are out there -- Wayne is absolutely right, they're out there. But one thing you've got to remember, they're legal, they're cheap and they're easy to get. You get them off the auctions. You can get them off the internet, anything you want. You can get a King Cobra to your house within 48 hours.
PAGEAll right. Tim Harrison, thank you so much for joining us.
HARRISONYeah, thank you. And I want everybody to remember too, just let these animals be animals. You know, let's not try to make them into something that they're not.
PAGEThanks very much. Tim Harrison from Dayton, Ohio of Outreach for Animals. Well, Zuzana, I want to give you a chance to respond to the point he made that it's dangerous and inappropriate to have these exotic animals in people's homes. How would you respond?
KUKOLWell, I would like to provide some statistics. In U.S.A. on average three people get killed each year by all exotic animals. That's from pets to zoos, three per year. Horses kill 20 to 25 people, dogs up to 30 people. Traffic accidents kill 45,000 people each year. I don't see that as the public safety issue here. And most of these people who are killed by exotic animals are the owners, which means it's occupational or hobby hazard. It's not a public safety issue.
KUKOLAnd they got into the chimp incident. Nobody in the recent history got killed by a non-human primate in the U.S.A. It was an unfortunate incident but this woman went there voluntarily. This chimp wasn't running free at the local shopping mall. The woman went there. She knew that she -- she took the chance. But the first face transplant occurred in France and it was due to the puppy chewing the woman's face off. But nobody's screaming to ban puppies because it's not an exotic animal.
KUKOLIt's not about danger. It's about political agenda to ban exotic animals from private possession.
PACELLEIt is indeed a (unintelligible) ...
KUKOLI wasn't done.
PACELLESusan just waved me on (unintelligible) ...
PAGEWell, let's (unintelligible) Zuzana, good to hear your perspective. I wanted to give Wayne a chance to respond.
PACELLEOh, it is indeed a political agenda to stop private citizens who typically have no idea what they're getting into from obtaining these animals. And again we can isolate one issue as public safety or ecology or animal welfare. But when you roll it all up, when you aggregate all of these compelling issues there is just no good reason for society to allow people to do this. They may want to do this very desperately.
PACELLEYou know, the dog fighters we deal with or the puppy millers that we deal with, they want to do what they want to do desperately but society balances the various interests here. And when you look at just the cost issue, I mean, what is the cost to society when you have basically eliminated a class of medium-sized and small mammals in the Everglades after we spent billions of dollars.
PACELLEOr Tim Harrison whom you had on from Ohio, who's really one of the nation's leading experts. The guy's on the front like, he's putting his life in danger responding to these cases because first responders have no idea how to deal with a chimp or a tiger or other animals that are at large because you have a class of reckless exotic animal owners in this country. And of course, Susan, we do have policies. Eighteen states have adopted laws to forbid private ownership of large categories of dangerous exotic animals. Other states regulate it. Seven states have no rules whatever.
PACELLEWe at the Humane Society of the United States are working with first responders, we're working with environmentalists, we're working with responsible animal owners to say no, this is out of bounds. Let's stop this madness. And Zuzana and others may think it's great to have an African lion in their backyard but we don't have absolute freedom in society. Especially when it comes to animals who are vulnerable.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. Let's go to Chet first. He's calling us from Georgia. Chet, hi, you're on the air.
CHETHi. Good morning. Thank you for taking the call.
CHETWell, I don't even know where to start. I'm the executive director of the Georgia Wildlife Rescue Association. Our main focus is to save Georgia's native wildlife. We spend a great deal of time dealing with exotics. And since I was a small child I've had pythons and boas and anacondas. I have 11 right now. All the snakes that I have now actually came as a result of either being captured or from being released or escaped. And I've completely changed my point of view there.
CHETNext week, we're actually going to try -- we have a warm spell right now, we're actually trying to find a snake on the Withlacoochee River that has been described by numerous people that -- and we know it's either an anaconda or a python. And we're not talking the Everglades, we're talking South Georgia in February. So I take issue with the trying to contain it to the southern tip of Florida because I believe with global warming, which is a whole other issue, they're moving further north.
PAGEWell, now you've had these exotic snakes yourself, but rescue snakes I guess you'd call them, the way we talk about rescue dogs. What do you think about people who want to buy these snakes and other reptiles because they're interested in them, because they think that's a great hobby? What do you think about that?
CHETThere may be some middle-of-the-road solution or compromise with snakes. But the problem here is when you're talking about the situation like you had in Ohio, that's something that's ridiculous. When it comes to pythons, right now anybody with a kid can go in a store and buy this squirmy little snake that's going to turn out to eventually be 12 to, you know, 20-something feet long.
CHETMyself, I got in a situation several years ago where I could not get one off of me. It was my own fault that it bit me. My problem was even with two adult people helping me I couldn't get it off. I ended up jumping in a swimming pool holding my breath and it actually, you know, released before I did. So it's comical now but it was not then.
PAGEI bet it wasn't. Andrew Wyatt, would you like to respond?
WYATTYes, I would. Apparently the gentleman is not familiar with the cold weather studies that were done in Florida down there in the Everglades where the University of Florida conducted a study of Burmese Pythons that were radio tagged in Everglades National Park. During the study nine of ten of the radio tagged snakes had come to the cold and that was in the very southern tip of Florida. The tenth did not succumb immediately. They pulled it out and tried to resuscitate it but it eventually died of respiratory infection.
WYATTThe USDA did a study in Gainesville, Fla. And seven of nine of their study animals died. The only two that didn't, it was because they were given artificial warm refuge. In South Carolina Savannah River Ecological Lab did a study with ten pythons that -- to try and determine whether they could live outside of the State of Florida. All ten succumbed to the cold.
PACELLEAnd is this a good thing, Andrew, that animals are freezing to death? I mean, this is one of our points.
WYATTNo, it's not a good thing -- it's not a good thing, Wayne. They shouldn't be there. I don't disagree with that. My point is that trying to scare America into thinking that pythons are going to crawl out of the Everglades and spread across the country eating kindergarteners and family pets on their way...
PACELLENo one suggested that. No one suggested that.
PACELLENo one suggested that. Point to a single -- what we said is that the U.S. Geological Service did a report in 2009 that said that nine species of large constricting snakes have the capacity or the capability to colonize portions of the southern tier of the United States. That was the U.S. Geological Service.
WYATTWere you aware of the fact that about a dozen scientists from the National Geographic Society, University of Florida, Texas A & M and others criticized that report as being not scientific and...
PACELLEYeah, I'm aware of, you know, anaconda owners and python owners who claim to be scientists saying that they...
WYATTHow about the professor of zoological medicine at the University of Georgia?
PACELLEI'm looking -- yeah, yeah...
WYATTHow about the Herpetologist for the National Geographic Society?
PACELLEAnyone can (word?) science in favor or against. The preponderance of science says that this is a reckless practice.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to San Antonio, Texas and talk to Shannon. Shannon, you're on the air.
SHANNONHello, and thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a quick statement and then I'll take my statement off the air. But one of your guests stated that why not to people owning wild animals and comparing these animals to living necessities like homes and automobiles that we need. You need shelter, of course. You need a car to get around, to go to your job. And her argument is just absolutely ridiculous. At no time should people, just because they think they can, without exercising good sense, be able to keep these wild animals. They're wild for a reason and this obviously is a major problem on a mass scale.
PAGEZuzana -- thank you very much for your call, Shannon. Zuzana, I believe you were the one who made that comment that Shannon was referring to. What would you say to her?
KUKOLI would say that car is really not a necessity. There are many people in the world who don't own a car. You can always ride a bike or take a bus. Car is a luxury. Pets are a luxury. Whether they are domestic or exotic, pets are a luxury. It's not a necessity. So that's where I go back to my original statement. Why shouldn't we have a choice if we want exotic or domestic pet? Besides, most of the exotic pets are very small. Many of them are small reptiles you can keep in an apartment.
KUKOLAnd most people really don't own pet tigers. It's a myth. Most of the tigers are in commercial licensed, federally licensed USDA facilities. There are maybe 50 tigers that are strictly pets. By pet, I mean is a noncommercial animal. It's our money pit. So...
PAGEZuzana, I wonder with the pets that you have, what about if you have a neighbor who has, you know, a little dog or some small children and is worried about safety issues, uncomfortable about being -- living in a neighborhood where there are some exotic pets. Does that situation ever come up for you?
KUKOLWell, let me explain our situation. We live out in a very rural area on large acreage and our neighbors have large acreages too. Our neighbors love our animals. If our lion doesn't roar one night they call, is he okay? Is he fine? They worry about our animals. We also have an emergency plan with our emergency department. They know the layout of our property. They know what to do. We have three platoons on three different days come over to our property and get training, what to do in case there is a fire or other kind of emergency. So people in our area they know about us, we train them, they are comfortable with us.
PAGEAll right. Wayne, what do you think?
PACELLELet me just say that, Susan, we -- at the Humane Society of the United States we maintain a number of wildlife and other animal care facilities. We spend millions of dollars on these facilities a year. We don't want one of these animals. They all come to us or we rescue them from some terrible crisis or circumstance. I travel around the country. I go to big cat rescue groups, I go to chimpanzee facilities. We have thousands of organizations -- truly, thousands of organizations that exist to clean up the messes of people like Zuzana and others who make reckless decisions to acquire these animals.
PACELLEThey are foisting a problem on the rest of society. And fortunately there's a very generous philanthropic sector in animal welfare, one that's struggling every day of the year to make budget to care for these animals who are all castaways. They're victims of cruelty. They're victims of ignorance that all of us -- none of these groups, Zuzana's REXANO group, which is a group that fights every attempt to restrict exotic animals, Andrew's group, they're not putting money in any significant amount into the care of these animals. It's the humane community that's doing it.
PACELLEAnd we're the ones driving the policies because we see that it's costing society. It costs in terms of injuries, ecology, most of all animal cruelty because they're almost always victims. And Tim Harrison who was on before will tell you that none of these animals, the tigers and the lions and the chimps ever have it good at the end of the day.
PAGEI want to give Andrew Wyatt a chance to respond but we're going to take a quick break first and then we'll come back. We'll take more of your calls, read more of your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With us on the phone from Las Vegas is Zuzana Kukol, president and co-founder of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership, REXANO. And with me here in the studio, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and Andrew Wyatt, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers.
PAGEWe've been talking about the practice of exotic pets across the country. Before the break, Wayne had made a criticism of groups like yours, Andrew, saying that you don't spend money on rescuing animals, exotic animals, who find themselves in perilous circumstances after being someone's pet. What would you say to him?
WYATTWell, I would say that Wayne is misinformed. I think he's not aware of what's going on out there. The reality of it is, there was a recent opinion poll by the Opinion Research Corp. that 71 percent of Americans believe that HSUS is an umbrella organization for Humane Societies and pet shelters around the country. The reality is they spend...
PACELLEYeah, done by -- done by...
PACELLE...a group that's...
PACELLE...it's attack our position.
WYATT...they spend less than one percent, about one-half of one percent on actual shelters.
PAGEBut -- but Wayne...
WYATTThe reality of it is...
PACELLEThat's wrong, Andrew. Andrew, that's completely wrong, false.
WYATTLet me -- let me go back to...
PACELLEThat's completely false, Andrew.
PACELLEAndrew, you know what the point is?
WYATTAm I going to be allowed to speak?
PACELLEYeah, no, you're making a ridiculous charge. You're making a false charge. What this Center for Consumer Freedom with Rick Berman...
WYATTThis is the Opinion Research Corporation.
PACELLEYeah, but hired by Rick Berman who attacks anti-smoking groups and Mothers Against Drunk Driving is that's the money we give to other organizations as a grant. We take care of our own animals, Andrew. I'll be happy to show you around Black Beauty Ranch where we spend a couple million dollars a year. I'll take you to the largest wildlife rehab center in the United States which is in Broward County that we run. It's not an issue of what we give to others. We do our own work. We don't have to give grants to other organizations in order to...
WYATTThe fact is...
PAGEAnd, excuse me, I would just say that this show is not about...
PAGE...the Humane Society. It's about the keeping of exotic pets and what it means for all of us, for ecology, for pet owners, for those who might be concerned about it. So I think this is not an issue that we want to...
PAGE...explore in this hour.
WYATTOkay. There is a point though back to the money that is being put back into animal welfare. The recent rule making by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would add four constricting snakes to the injurious wildlife list of the Lacey Act creates a situation where hundreds of thousands, if not millions of animals could be displaced if someone had to leave the state that they live in. Because then they would become Lacey Act felons if they transfer them across state lines.
WYATTSo there's an initiative out there called the Burmese Python Initiative. It's at savetheburms.org where we've raised $150,000 to be able to house and care for these animals so that they don't end up being euthanized or out on the streets or whatever, so that they can have a safe place to go and be re-homed. And I would challenge Wayne to donate some money to the...
PACELLEYeah, we're gonna...
WYATT...to the Burmese Python Initiative.
PACELLE...we're gonna clean up the mess that you guys have created by blocking the laws, that you've created so much cruelty. You've created such ecological havoc causing our nation millions and millions of tens of millions of dollars because of your selfish pursuit...
WYATTYou can't document any of that.
PACELLE...of private ownership of animals that do not belong in our homes. Lions, tigers, chimpanzees, Burmese pythons, alligators belong in the wild. And they belong in accredited zoos and in reputable sanctuaries. And if we all spend our money chasing all of these animals that are getting out there because of a series of irresponsible actions of exotic animal owners, we'll all go bankrupt. We need front end policies to prevent these animals from getting out to begin with.
PAGENow, we've had several emailers send in suggestions when it comes to trying to strike some kind of balance in this debate. Here's one from Nick who writes us in Tampa. He says, "Why do advocates of restricting exotic animal ownership come down to ending individual's rights to own them? Why don't restriction advocates put forth individual education and training efforts in order for individuals to own them?" And a similar point from Caroline who writes us from Dallas. She says, "You have to pass a test to get a driver's license. Why not license dangerous animal ownership?" What do you think about that idea, Wayne?
PACELLEI think it's ludicrous, Susan. How -- our government doesn't have money to be training and testing people, instead of a whole regulatory system. We don't regulate dog fights. We don't regulate cock fights. There are certain behaviors that we judge to be outside the bounds of the norms of a society. These are wild animals. Burmese pythons belong in Burma, Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia. Reticulated pythons belong in their native habitats. Tigers belong in India or China, not in people's homes in Lisbon, Ohio.
PAGEAre there regulations that stop short of banning ownership of exotic pets that do something to address this issue in a way that you think makes sense?
PACELLEI don't think that it makes sense to regulate keeping dangerous wild animals as pets. There are no good outcomes for these animals. Most people get them very naively. Andrew may be an expert keeper. If he is, he is one of very few people who are experts. A lot of people get these animals impulsively.
WYATTWayne paints with a broad brush.
PACELLEThey get them -- they get them -- they get them young. They get them -- do you have any data to show that people are -- I can tell you, Andrew, you...
WYATTI can't prove a negative, no, Wayne.
PACELLE...you may not know because we deal with the discards of people who are involved in your industry all the time. The Humane community has thousands and thousands of rescue groups that exist because people make the wrong decisions with animals.
WYATTPeople make the wrong decisions with children, automobiles and their pets too. And you taking the worst case scenarios...
PACELLEThat's why we have child abuse laws. That's why we have child abuse laws.
WYATT...and painting with a broad brush to try and characterize everyone as being...
WYATT...the worst case scenario.
PACELLENo, I'm not saying the worst case.
PAGEI'd like to -- I'd like to get Zuzana in on this conversation. Zuzana, I'm wondering, as an advocate for exotic pet ownership, are there restrictions and regulations that go short of a ban that you think would make sense? Or do you think this is an area that should basically be just left to individuals deciding for themselves?
KUKOLRight now, it's too late because most of the communities already have some regulations. And the local level, even the state, does have regulations. But I would like to address Wayne's comment that these animals should be in the wild. First of all, the wild is disappearing. Even many animals in U.S.A. that venture into human habitat, just like cougars, they need to be killed because there is no place to take them back. You cannot just dump cougar in other cougar's territory.
KUKOLThe other thing he said was that these animals should be in accredited zoos and sanctuaries. It's interesting to point out in the last few fatal attacks by elephants and big cats happen in accredited sanctuary in Tennessee and in zoos. It was the jaguar in Colorado and tiger in San Francisco. What's interesting about the San Francisco incident, there was one tiger that got loose and it killed a visitor and injured two more visitors.
KUKOLThe zoo personnel...
PAGE...to go back to the -- could you go back to the question I asked you? Are there regulations that you think make sense that would help strike some kinda balance, either on the kinds of animals that can be owned or the way in which they need to be kept? Or do you think this is really for you an issue in which you think no regulations are appropriate?
KUKOLI believe in fair regulations when it comes to caging and perimeter fence. However, what's happening now, when there is regulational bans proposed, it exempts the AZA zoos and sanctuaries and bans everybody else, which is not fair. I think the law should apply equally. I believe in fair regulation, but it should apply equally. There should not be exemptions because where I was going with this, the last few fatal incidents occurred in facilities that are usually exempt from these bans, which makes no sense.
PAGEAndrew, here's a tweet that we got with a question directed for you from Steven. He tweets, "If nine of ten python succumb to a Florida cold snap, how are the glades still full of pythons?" Why is this still a problem if they die with a cold snap?
WYATTAccording to Scott Harden at Florida Fish and Wildlife, currently their state wildlife organization is estimating that over the last two years, the cold winters, that as much as 80 to 90 percent of the pythons have actually succumbed to the cold. But back to the framework of being able to keep these animals responsibly, USR promotes a set of best management practices in regards to this animal. We've passed our best management practices into law. In fact, the HSUS didn't even oppose us when we passed this into law in other states. And it's -- and states are looking at it now.
PACELLEDo you support chimps and big cats in the pet trade?
WYATTMy expertise is in reptiles. I haven't...
PACELLEYou don't need expertise to make a judgment about whether people should be permitted to have a tiger in their home.
WYATTIf they're qualified and their responsible and they have the resources to be able to responsibly work with these animals, I don't see why not. But that's really -- that's not...
PACELLEAnd who determines that?
WYATT...I'm not an expert on that.
PACELLEWho determines that?
WYATTI don't know. Like I said, I'm not part of the policy nuts and bolts on that.
PACELLEThis is the problem, Susan, is that there is no regulatory authority to inspect everyone's private home. You're talking about tens of thousands of people who have these animals. We don't have government inspectors at the ready who can start checking cage size and do testing to make sure that people are responsible. We need to make broad rules in society. And the rule is that domesticated animals belong in our lives and in our homes, but wild animals don't. Except if they're a refugee or a castoff, then we have facilities like sanctuaries and zoos that are accredited, that can provide professional support to do the best that you can within a captive setting.
WYATTWell, you can...
PAGELet's go to Cameron. He's calling us from Portland, Maine, that's been holding on. Cameron, thank you for being so patient.
CAMERONHey, thanks for taking my call, love the show. I just had a comment mostly concerning invasive side of this, is that this problem extends beyond the terrestrial realm. Because there are people that collect exotic animals for aquariums as well. And they'll collect fish from the Pacific Ocean and they'll have their aquarium in Florida. And whatever happens, maybe a hurricane, they just let them loose. They end up in the water. They end up in the Caribbean. And you don't know what's gonna happen with an invasive species.
CAMERONSo now just give an example, there's this Flying Fish. And basically, the Flying Fish is in the Caribbean. It's already made its way up to Bermuda and it's devastating local fish populations because it has evolved in Pacific Ocean over millions of years. And these (word?) don't know what to do with it, so it's an invasive problem. That's my main concern.
PAGEAll right, Cameron. Thanks so much for your call. Is this something -- an area you work in yourself?
CAMERONWell, I'm a graduate student in marine science, but this is not my area of expertise, so...
PAGEAll right. Well, Cameron, thanks so much for giving us a call.
CAMERONThank you. Bye.
PACELLEWell, I was just -- you know, I think here, Susan, what we've got a balancing issue. I mean, REXANO which is a private property rights group and Andrew's organization, you know, fight regulations. They say that their personal liberty is the paramount issue. We're saying that there are a much larger set of issues at work and that the protection of our environment, animal welfare, public safety, cost to the public should be factored in, and that when you take a look at the broader issue, there's just no compelling reason to continue to do this.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go talk to Sandy who's calling us from Baltimore. Sandy, you're on the air.
SANDYThank you very much. First, I just wanna say that I was an animal keeper for 28 years in large zoos. I also have been involved in reptile rescue with an accredited non-profit for the past 20 years. So I've worked with a lot of different animals. I worked for 13 years just with primates. And I know from my own personal experience and training new keepers, it takes a long time to teach people how to take really quality care of exotics. And I just don't think that most people right of the bat are going to know how to take care of their exotic, nor a private citizen on the whole going to begin to have the financial resources or the knowledge how to properly cage animals to provide the habitats they need to keep them happy.
SANDYBut the point I wanna mention that has been discussed here is in the case of reptiles, a lot of reptiles that are in our pet trade come from overseas, and so many of them die in the process of coming over here. And that's really underappreciated how much devastation we're doing to wild populations in order to support trade in this country.
PAGESandy, thanks so much for your call. So you've been working this field. What do you think? Do you think this ought to be banned for private ownership, regulated in some way? What is your idea about what ought to be done? Sandy?
PAGEYes. I'm wondering what do we think we ought to do?
SANDYI don't think that people should be allowed to own wild exotics and definitely that would be in the case of the large -- any of the cats and bears and all of that. To me, there's just -- that's a no-brainer. I think in the case of reptiles, I could imagine that captive born small snakes that never achieve size would be okay. It's fairly easy to care for snakes. But I don't think, in the case of turtles and lizards, which are other reptiles, that most people succeed.
SANDYI had a specialty with (word?) lizards, which are tree dwelling lizards for quite a long time. I do turtle rescue now primarily. And it's really hard to meet their needs. And I just don't think people should be allowed them. And that would apply to both native species as well as exotics that, you know, come from other countries. Certainly there are people who are dedicated and do a wonderful job of it, but most people don't. So for, you know, for everyone that succeeds, there's just countless that don't.
SANDYAnd you go to any pet shop or go to any trade show where they're selling the goods to care for these animals, and I know from my own personal experience, decades of experience, that what they're generally offering in terms of information, housing, products for nutrition, et cetera, are just so inadequate.
PAGESandy, thanks so much for giving your perspective. You know, we've had several emails like this one from Donna, who says, "I would like to hear Mr. Pacelle address the emotional impact of confinement upon these animals. We've mainly been hearing about the safety issue associated with private ownership of exotic animals. But we haven't heard anything yet about the impact of such ownership on the animals themselves. I'm thinking about cases such as Tony the Truck Stop Tiger and other similarly imprisoned animals." Just a little bit of time left. Wayne, what would you say?
PACELLEWell, the previous caller, let me say, I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. And this goes back to the point that even if Andrew and a couple of other people, and I have no knowledge of his animal care performance, but if it's great, good for you. But the vast majority of people are not. But -- so the trade issue...
WYATTYou have no basis for that statement.
PACELLE...it's the trade issue. Yes, I do because we work with these people all the time. Sandy was absolutely right about the trade issues. But the message that you just related, Susan, about the long-term confinement of animals, the fact that these animals, you know, have instincts and needs that cannot be met in these captive settings, that's why accredited zoos struggle with enrichment programs. And we're learning so much more about the needs of the animals. For a private citizen with almost no experience, no training, to deal with a complex set of behavioral needs of the animal is just an impossible situation.
PAGEI know that we have big divisions on this issue with our panel and with some of our callers, but we're out of time. I wanna thank our panel for joining us. Zuzana Kukol from the Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership group, Andrew Wyatt, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Thank you all for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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