By Mannix Porterfield
CHARLESTON — Unless a Bengal tiger, African elephant or bull elephant is already a member of your domicile, the time could come when owning one of those jungle beasts is barred in West Virginia.
A renewed effort is afoot, led by the Division of Natural Resources, to outlaw the private ownership of some exotic and dangerous animals in the state.
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, told a committee of legislators Monday that West Virginia lacks any statutory means to control and regulate non-indigenous animals.
And such controls are needed to protect not only state residents but native animals in the wild, Johansen told the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee.
“Here in West Virginia, we’re not immune from these issues,” he said, noting last winter’s failed bill was inspired by the escape of some 50 huge cats in Zanesville, Ohio.
“A few years ago, a lion escaped in Cass and was shot on (the property of) Snowshoe Ski Resort.”
Nor is there anything in state code to prescribe penalties or allow for destruction orders when such animals need to be put down.
“No one knows how many of these dangerous animals are being held privately and in captivity in West Virginia, or if they’re a threat to our residents, our livestock and our wildlife,” Johansen said.
For some time, he said, the DNR has worked in tandem with the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau for Public Health on new legislation.
In mind is an oversight board to prepare and file legislative rules, while developing a list of prohibited species.
Anyone owning an animal that makes the list of barred animals would be grandfathered in but still subject to rules and regulations for keeping them, he emphasized.
There would be some exceptions, such as circuses, research entities, and companions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Delegate Joe Talbott, D-Webster, was told that native reptiles wouldn’t be covered, after he alluded to some religious sects that handle rattlesnakes in worship services.
“They used to do that in Webster County,” he said, “until three guys caught three rattlesnakes and put them on the altar. The place evacuated real quickly.”
Johansen said sufficient controls are in place to regulate native animals without subjecting them to the proposed oversight board, which would meet once annually.
The DNR official told Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, that it is possible a citizen member could serve on the board.
Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a subcommittee co-chairman, wondered how SB477, which Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed, might have been “fatally flawed.”
“I felt as if the matter was vetted pretty well,” Laird said.
“At least I got an e-mail from every person in West Virginia that owned an iguana, I believe.”
Johansen said the measure wasn’t flawed but this time around the approach is to consider which animals should be barred outright from private ownership.
Laird said the image of a dangerous tiger on the prowl is one matter to consider but another is the prospect of exotic animals spreading disease.
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In another matter, another DNR official, Lt. Tim Coleman, told the panel that tree stand accidents are on the rise among West Virginia hunters.
Of 24 accidents in this season, he said, half involved tree stands.
Between 2003 and 2012, the DNR recorded 241 hunting accidents, and 74, or about 31 percent, involved tree stands.
On the positive side, only four of the mishaps this season involved mistakenly shooting a fellow hunter, Coleman said.
“Hunter education has really done its job,” he said, noting there were 56 such incidents when he broke into the DNR some 34 years ago.
“Tree stands are jumping out there as a major cause of the accidents,” Coleman said.
“But at the same time, it’s not all that bad when you look at the overall picture.”
The sudden jump this fall can be explained by the earlier than customary start — in September — of the archery season, the lieutenant said.
“Tree stands and hunting with a bow have become more popular,” Coleman said.
Coleman told Laird that equipment failure is not as common as it was years ago when handmade stands dotted the forests of the state.
What dominates the accident scene nowadays is simple hunter error — failure to keep stands up, making sure bolts are secure and teeth are driven into the tree, he said.
He also told Laird that the DNR does track alcohol-related accidents.
“Yes, we really watch for that,” Coleman said.
“Knock on wood. We’ve been lucky so far — none.”
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