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N.C. should ban dangerous wildlife ownership

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It was a sickening scene last week in Ohio, where police were forced to kill dozens of exotic animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers. It's equally sickening to realize that the same thing could easily happen in North Carolina.

The Ohio slaughter, which reportedly left some of the officers involved distraught, became necessary after Terry Thompson, the owner of a supposed "animal farm," killed himself after setting his large collection of exotic beasts free. The animals — which, in addition to the tigers, also included lions, bears and wolves — started roaming the countryside, creating a situation so dangerous that even animal-rights advocates agreed police had little choice but to kill the potentially deadly creatures.

What makes the carnage even more tragic, and frighteningly relevant to N.C., is that it could have been avoided if Ohio Gov. John "Tea Party" Kasich had not let a statewide ban on buying and selling exotic pets expire in April. The Humane Society of the United States laid into Kasich last week. Wayne Pacelle, the Society's president and CEO, summed up the situation this way: "Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it's time for delaying on the rule-making to end."

The same could be said for North Carolina, which has no statewide permit or license requirements for anyone who wants to keep any "exotic" animals other than poisonous snakes. The state doesn't even keep track of potentially dangerous wild animals, nor where they're being kept. What's more, the practice is completely legal in N.C., although endangered species such as Bengal tigers cannot be sold across state lines.

With the state leaving common sense up to the counties, some of them, including Mecklenburg County, ban private ownership of dangerous wildlife. Most counties in the western part of the state, however, have no restrictions at all.

Rowan County, northeast of Charlotte, has no problem with its citizens making a home for dangerous, exotic beasts. The town of Rockwell in Rowan County was once home to the Charlotte Metro Zoo, a collection of exotic animals that was later renamed Metrolina Wildlife Park. In 2003, Creative Loafing was the first local media outlet to report on the myriad problems at the facility. The wildlife park finally closed in 2008, after owner Steve Macaluso ran into numerous legal problems, including citations for inadequate animal care and insufficient protection for visitors.

The land that held Macaluso's operation is now home to another sanctuary, Tiger World. Unlike Terry Thompson's "park" in Ohio, Tiger World is a licensed nonprofit center, inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and described on its website as "dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation and preservation of exotic animals." After last week's Ohio butchery, Tiger World owner Lea Jaunakis posted a statement on Facebook, bemoaning the lack of effective oversight by Ohio officials, and arguing against a ban on private ownership of exotic animals. "However," she wrote, "we support regulations and standards ... there is a need to write legislation designed to prevent people who are unqualified, or who are failing to provide for the welfare of the animals and the safety of the public, from possessing these types of animals."

I understand Janakais' position and it's good to know about her strong sense of responsibility. At the same time, I wonder if keeping animals like lions and tigers in private facilities is ever a good idea. The hard truth is that even in well-regulated privately owned animal sanctuaries, you still have wild predatory beasts, a mere wall of chain-link away from tearing off your head in the event of a violent storm, tornado or flood. Moreover, as I've written before — about circuses coming to town, or the orca whale that killed a trainer in Florida — "Why don't they just let these animals be?" It is literally unnatural for them to be unable to roam, hunt, and have the company of other members of their species. So, why cage them for our entertainment?

British essayist and critic John Berger says humans go to zoos and animal shows in order to regain a bit of our lost connections with nature — to reunite, even if we don't realize it at the time, with ancient traditions of living cheek-by-jowl, as it were, with other animals. That makes sense to me. In fact, other than satisfying human curiosity, I can't see any good reason for private ownership of the likes of tigers and lions. North Carolina state government should move quickly to outlaw it — for all parties' sakes, including humans and the sad animals we love to gawk at.

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