People have no business routinely mingling with the likes of lions, tigers and bears, Dos Palos, California resident Cortney Sumpter thinks.
Her fellow Californian Joel Grimm agrees. The Lemon Grove resident, like Sumpter, wants tighter rules governing the iconic mammals that are both photogenic and potentially dangerous.
“I am appalled at how exotic animals are continuing to be exploited in our culture,” Grimm advised the Agriculture Department this month.
Now, having heard in writing from Grimm, Sumpter and more than 20,000 other people during a public comment period that expires Wednesday, the Agriculture Department must figure out whether to sink its own teeth into the animal welfare fight.
Citing dozens of commercial animal exhibitors like North Carolina’s Cherokee Bear Zoo, Florida’s Suncoast Primate Sanctuary and Idaho’s Yellowstone Bear World, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups urged the federal government to take action more than three years ago.
Which animals may pose a public health risk and why? What risks does public contact with dangerous animals present to the individual animal and the species, and why?
U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
In their 2012 petition, the groups, which included Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, sought revised rules that would include a general prohibition on individuals coming into direct contact with big cats, bears or non-human primates. The proposed ban would include the handling of young or immature animals.
Strong feelings abound on all sides.
“This is applying to people who are already licensed and heavily regulated,” Mindy Peterson, the president of Missouri’s Cavalry Group, which advocates for animal-related businesses, said Monday of the potential for new rules.
The proposed rules would govern the holders of licenses granted by the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“Thousands of big cats, bears and non-human primates reside in exhibition facilities around the country that are licensed by APHIS yet routinely conduct activities that undermine animal welfare,” the petition says.
The groups further estimated “there are hundreds of licensed facilities that possess dangerous animals” nationwide. Some offer experiences that can get up-close and personal.
For $250 a person, for instance, one Georgia preserve offers visitors a chance to feed its leopards and lions. A Florida operation invites visitors to swim with a tiger, for a payment of $200. Cubs can be especially popular.
“Thousands of people are being duped by the cub-petting exhibitors,” Howard Baskin, the advisory board chairman for Big Cat Rescue, said Monday. “They tell people that paying to pet or swim with cubs somehow supports conservation and that the cubs live idyllic lives in sanctuaries when too old to pet.”
Peterson, of the Cavalry Group, countered that “private animal owners rely on contact with the public” to support worthwhile activities and that private owners “are the true conservationists who keep these species alive.”
The exhibitors obtain licenses under the Animal Welfare Act, a law originally passed in 1966 to prevent pets from being stolen for sale to research laboratories. The law does not cover farm animals.
After gathering thousands of opinions in 2013, the Agriculture Department rested until it reopened the public comment period in June. As of Monday, 20,325 public comments had been received.
“Public contact with these animals puts them and visitors at risk for no good reason,” the form letter sent in by California’s Cortney Sumpter and many others says.
Potential rule revisions could range from identifying standards for barriers and humane training techniques to clarifying the factors that determine whether a type of animal is suitable for public contact. Or the Agriculture Department might simply stand pat.
“We can only speculate on USDA motivation,” Baskin said of the decision to reopen comments. He said he hoped that “means they are seeking to act favorably on the petition.”
Anna Frostic, a senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States, added Monday that the Agriculture Department has multiple options it could pursue.