The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 11, 2011

Humane Society to propose bills on exotic animals and puppy mills

CHARLESTON — Keeping a Bengal tiger in the backyard could become illegal in West Virginia.

Ditto for a hulking primate, a giraffe, a boa constrictor, an elephant or any poisonous reptile for that matter, if the Humane Society of the United States gets its way with the Legislature.

Besides the so-called “exotic animal” legislation, state director Summer Wyatt also is returning in January with the so-called “puppy mill” proposal.

Wyatt says the Humane Society was inspired to seek laws in states without one — West Virginia has no such bans — after the bizarre incident last Oct. 18 in Zanesville, Ohio.

Authorities were forced to open fire and kill 48 tigers, bears and other animals after Terry Thompson liberated them and then took his own life in northeast Ohio.

“I can’t imagine how scary and horrific that would have been,” Wyatt said.

“We (society) thought there would be a push because that could happen at any time, anywhere, where there aren’t laws or where these laws aren’t being administered properly.”

West Virginia is among states lacking any such regulation whatsoever with regard to keeping such animals pets, boarding them in the backyard, or owning them inside a home.

“I feel, and most people would agree, that exotic animals should not be kept as pets in most cases,” Wyatt said.

Her bill covers a wide gamut of exotic animals, from nonhuman primates to huge cats not considered the domestic variety — tigers, lions, cheetahs and panthers — and large constrictor snakes.

If someone already owns such a pet, passage of the bill wouldn’t mean the animals would be confiscated, since existing owners are protected under a grandfather clause, she emphasized.

“We realize there are people that own these animals in West Virginia,” said Wyatt, a former Miss West Virginia.

“We don’t want these animals euthanized or what have you, so there’s a grandfather clause for people that happen to own these animals. But you would have to keep veterinary records and let local animal control and law enforcement in a county know that you own these animals.”

What’s more, Wyatt said the Humane Society realizes that some facilities and individuals run sanctuaries that provide a service to the community, the state and the public by absorbing animals that couldn’t get adequate care by their original owners.

“Or when they’re an endangered species and need to have been placed in a zoo, a sanctuary of that type, to continue the breeding and living of this specific species,” she said.

Once again, Wyatt, in her capacity as the Humane Society’s director in West Virginia, is trying to convince enough lawmakers to enact a “puppy mill” law, since such operations are now unregulated.

This would be applicable to commercial breeders who produce a large number of dogs annually for sale as pets.

The idea is to apply this to commercial businesses so that the health of the animals used for breeding is assured, Wyatt explained.

“These dogs are not just a commodity, not just a cash crop,” she said. “They’re animals that have needs. This bill allows for the size of the kennels, the amount of exercise, veterinarian care — things that our animals that are pets receive.”

Under the legislation, the maximum dogs allowed in such commercial enterprises would be set at 50.

So far, no sponsors have been lined up, although Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, has been an advocate of animal protection legislation in the past.

Last winter, the puppy mill proposal easily cleared the House of Delegates but got lost in the shuffle in the final week of the session after it was assigned to a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I’m trying to work as hard on this as I can,” Wyatt said.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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