Exotic ownership regulations threaten local animal rescue

It’s not the exotic tigers that pose a threat to the safety of the Conservators’ Center. It’s the law.

The Conservators’ Center, a nonprofit organization in Caswell County dedicated to caring for abandoned or injured exotic species, is currently facing a threat from pending federal legislation that would jeopardize its existence.

A caracal comes to the front of its cage to get a good look at the tour group.

In recent years, many states have tightened restrictions against the private ownership of exotic animals.  Twenty-one states already have comprehensive bans on private ownership, and eight more ban most exotic animals as pets. But if private ownership is deemed illegal nationwide, which the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act proposes, only citizens who are registered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) would be able to breed large cats, according to Mindy Stinner, co-founder of the Conservators’ Center.

The Conservators’ Center is not accredited by the AZA for a number of reasons.  A large part is due to the expense, which is heightened by the AZA stipulation that the Center must look a certain way for the public. The Center would also be required to put its tigers in nightly lockdown in a small concrete area and would lose the ability to make decisions for its animals.

“The AZA being a private club makes me really leery,” Stinner said. “I don’t like a private club being the only organization that has the right to do anything. If the government is going to pass new rules about something, then it should say all the people that our government agency licenses should be exempted.”

Stinner is referring to the USDA, the government agency that licenses the Conservators’ Center.  Stinner isn’t opposed to putting a limit on who owns large cats, but thinks instead of shutting down USDA licensed facilities, the government should simply tighten the USDA’s criteria.

“I have no problem at all with someone saying you shouldn’t have a pet tiger,” Stinner said. “But I think if you have a licensing agency that comes in and looks at you and says animal welfare and public safety are taken care of, then it seems to me that you should be able to continue operating.”

The two lemurs are among the most intelligent animals at the Conservators' Center.

North Carolina is regulated county by county, so there is no state law banning private ownership of a  tiger. Every second or third session, a bill is introduced that would prohibit all ownership of exotic animals, Stinner said. But the bill has failed because the lawmakers often overreach and add as many as 10,000 species to the bill. Stinner has come up with a potential sponsor for a state-wide bill that would exempt USDA licensed facilities and hold non-licensed facilities to the same standards by having them regulated by a local animal control officer.

“We would support a bill in North Carolina that would put one standard on all the counties saying there is the expectation of what is good for the animal and safe for the public,” she said. “That way we don’t rip away animals from people who are bonded to them and love them and have good homes.”

In North Carolina, there are about a dozen facilities that own large cats. If the federal bill is passed in its current form, only three facilities would remain open. The bill wouldn’t immediately shut down the non-accredited facilities, but once the current group of big cats owned by the private sector die out, the only ones left would be at AZA accredited facilities. Private facilities whose big cats attract visitors would close, and the rest of the animals would need to be rescued.

But if the Conservators’ Center didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be able to take in the miscellaneous animals that most facilities turn away.

“As long as there are businesses that use animals, there will be places that need to take the animals that the businesses can’t keep anymore,” Stinner said. “It’s a good need.”

The legislation, which is an amendment to the Lacey Act, exists due to amplified media coverage of private ownership of exotic animals, Stinner said. When 49 animals from Terry Thompson’s wildlife preserve in Zanesville, Ohio were shot dead, people begin assuming all private ownership was of a similar nature.

A red fox takes a nap in the shade after feeding time.

“That kind of situation makes people angry and upset and scared, and so bills always fall on the heels of that,” Stinner said.

Another misconception is that animal rights organizations have the same mission as animal welfare organizations. Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Human Society of the United States believe animals shouldn’t exist in captivity at all, whereas animal welfare groups, such as the Conservators’ Center, believe in doing what’s best for the species.

“Animal rights sounds great, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with protecting an individual animal and certainly not with protecting a species,” said Kim Pyne, an English professor at Elon and long term volunteer at the Conservators’ Center.  “There are other political agendas involved.”

These well-funded national organizations make campaigns that are hard for animal-lovers to argue against, Stinner said. They advertise that they are shutting down ill-managed circuses and taking down farms with abusive practices, actions most people agree with. But what they don’t specify is that they also support taking away a pet dog and the eggs people eat for breakfast.

“(PETA) has the worst adoption rate out of any shelter in the five state region,” Stinner said. “They have a 95 percent kill rate. People leave their entire estate to PETA, and PETA euthanizes the animals and says well, some animals can’t be re-homed. And I think that’s appalling. To call yourself People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and not treat them ethically is really abusive.”

Most of the lions take an afternoon nap after feeding time.

In addition to misleading campaigns, statistics are often manipulated in order to sway people’s opinions on private ownership, said Mandy Matson, who manages communications at the Conservators’ Center. When a statistic such as 7,000 tigers are currently in private hands is thrust into the spotlight, there comes with it the implication that all 7,000 are backyard tigers, she said.

“When you see a statistic like that, what you need to keep in mind is that not all of them are dangerous to the community,” Matson said.

Because of this, banning private ownership of exotic species sounds normal on the surface and is something many people would say they agree with, said Rebecca Pope-Ruark, an Elon professor who works closely with the Conservators’ Center. But if there isn’t enough free space in the wild, having the animals in captivity is better than not having them at all, Stinner said.

“I know there are some people who, as a matter of principal, don’t believe in the ownership of exotic animals, (and think) that they should be in the wild and that humans have no business putting them away in cages,” said Martin Fowler, who teaches a philosophy course at Elon entitled Animal Captivity: Zoos, Sanctuaries and Asylums. “But those who run these facilities would say, well that sounds very good in principal, but there are real animals alive right now in need of our help.”

The Conservators’ Center differs from a zoo in that its mission is focused on the needs and well-being of the animals, and not on being an exhibit for the public.

A staff member at the Conservators' Center explains the eating habits of a binturong.

“(A zoo) is seen as a public institution, like a public library, whereas the Conservators’ Center is more like a battered animal shelter; it’s (the animals’) well-being that comes first,” Fowler said. “Since that was their first motivation, they were slower towards becoming visible to the public. They like public support, they need it, but they don’t want to do it to such an extent that the needs of the animals are compromised.”

Zoos will often choose which animals are presented to the public based on what people want to see, Fowler said. The Conservators’ Center didn’t intend to have the diversity and type of population they now have, but have found a way to meet the needs of the animals.

“The Conservators’ Center never wanted to have tours, that was not the mission,” Pope-Ruark said. “The mission was to be a place of last resort for animals who were otherwise going to be killed. It was never supposed to go public.”

The Center opened to the public in an effort to raise money to accommodate 14 lions and their offspring in 2004. The lions were seized from breeding groups in Ohio, where they lived in a square area of just 20 feet on each side and were physically and verbally abused. After the health department ruled that the management of the facility violated health codes, the USDA was asked to help place the animals in a new facility.

One of the ten tigers wakes up from an afternoon nap.

One of the lions was Maggie, a submissive lioness who was the omega of the pride.  Maggie drew the attention of Shelly Benson, a resident of North Carolina who has adopted a number of animals from facilities similar to the Conservators’ Center. When Benson met Maggie, she immediately signed up to be a Lifetime Adopter, allowing her to form a special relation with Maggie and have unique access to certain parts of the facility after going through training on proper safety measures.

Benson now visits Maggie at least once a month and finds herself constantly thanking the Conservators’ Center for providing Maggie, and the rest of the animals at the Center, with a safe home.

“I have this opportunity to not only see (the animals) up close, but to get to know them and their personalities, and that’s such a gift,” Benson said. “It’s been a delight to see (Maggie) and build a relationship with this beautiful animal. My (husband and I) are so fortunate, and the animals are so fortunate that they ended up at the Conservators’ Center. “

Benson and her husband pay a fee of $100 a month, all of which goes directly back to the Center in order for them to provide for the animals and constantly make room for more.

“We never want them to say ‘I’m sorry, we can’t take in this animal, we don’t have enough funds, we don’t have enough support,’” Benson said. “Because we don’t know what would have happened to Maggie if they didn’t take her in.”

The caracal, whose fur was shaved so it could receive diabetes shots, paces back and forth.

The Conservators’ Center, whose annual budget is less than $200,000 a year and receives no government funding, relies on the Lifetime Adopters for much of its income. The largest source of income, however, comes from its increasingly popular tour program.  Transitioning from a private to a public facility was difficult, both physically and financially, Matson said.  But having seen what the money has been able to provide for the animals put the majority of the staff on board, and the animals were quick to follow.

“The first concern was how are the animals going to react,” she said. “Because it built slowly the animals adjusted to it, and what we’ve discovered is that the animals really like it. It’s really worked out well for both human and animal.”

Now more than ever, the tour program is especially vital in bringing in support for the Center and showing more people that the Center isn’t someplace to be fearful of.

“Until you come here, you can’t know,” Stinner said. “We’re not crazies in the woods with lions and tigers running around everywhere. I don’t want people being afraid of our animals or thinking we are a threat.”

Both Congressman Brad Miller, who recently visited the Center, and Senator Kay Hagan believe the bill is too radical to pass in its current form. Julie Stainback, an Elon Law Leadership Fellow whose capstone project focused on the legislation, said she isn’t opposed to the bill passing if it takes a different form.

The jungle cat paces in the afternoon sun.

“I think there should definitely be some type of legislation or some type of regulation regarding the issue,” she said. “I don’t think that anybody should be able to go out and be able to buy a tiger because it is a threat to public safety and public health. But I definitely think that the bill they are proposing right now is not practical.”

Stinner is similarly hopeful that the bill will pass in a form she agrees with.

“I’ve never been an activist until all of these bills started coming and I went, ‘oh, this could actually shut down our business,’” she said. “But it’s so radical that it makes me think it won’t pass in its current form.”

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