Exotic pets debated anew

OLYMPIA — Impassioned animal rights activists, devoted exotic pet owners and overworked law enforcement officials argued for the second straight year before the House Judiciary Committee about owning wild animals at pets.

House Bill 1151, sponsored by Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, seeks to prohibit the ownership of certain animals. The proposed list includes tigers, cougars, lions, bears, wolves, alligators, non-human primates, prairie dogs and gambian rats.

The animals, Lovick and animal rights groups contend, are dangerous to humans.

"They are completely inappropriate as companion pets," said Jennifer Hillman, campaign and legislative coordinator for Lynnwood’s Progressive Animal Welfare Society.

"If Roy Horn, who had over 44 years of experience handling tigers, isn’t safe, who is?"

Horn, of Siegfried and Roy fame in Las Vegas, was seriously injured during a show in the fall.

Animal owners and breeders expressed their fury at what they deem to be a bill that misses the target by regulating animals and not their negligent owners.

Justin and Laura Jean Krueger of Oak Harbor, who co-own Puget Sound Reptiles, cite schools and nonprofit organizations among their clients.

"I’m appalled that I am here again," Krueger said. "This should be the least-important item on the tax dollar agenda in Washington state."

John Lussmyer of Whidbey Island gave emotional testimony, likening his bobcats, ages 23 and 25, to family members.

"I just don’t see the point of forcing people not to own pets — especially if they take good care of them," Lussmyer said.

Last year, the bill passed the House 60-34, but it stalled in Senate.

Rep. Mike Carrell, R-Tacoma, the ranking minority member of the judiciary committee, expressed concern about the overregulation of pets.

At the recent legislative hearing, county sheriffs and U.S. fish and wildlife officials were opposed to shouldering the regulatory responsibility. In Washington state, animal control is handled at the local level. When there is no animal control, sheriffs are charged with enforcing ordinances.

"When you have an agency that is called ‘Fish and Wildlife,’ why don’t you let them deal with it?" Lewis County Sheriff John McCloskey asked. "We’re not gonna dance around with an animal that eats you."

Cowlitz County Sheriff Bill Mahoney added that he would rather send a deputy to track down a sexual predator than inspect a kennel.

Bruce Bjork, chief of enforcement for fish and wildlife, testified that he had only 105 officers statewide to cover a broad range of areas unrelated to animal control.

After the hearing, Lovick was convinced that, despite the heated differences, there exists a desire on all sides to improve the laws surrounding wild animals.

"One thing that clearly came out of the debate was not the question, ‘Should we regulate?’ but rather, ‘How should we regulate?’ "

In light of the testimony, Lovick said that he would consider revisiting whose jurisdiction the bill’s enforcement falls under.

Washington is one of 16 states that has no ban on wild animals as pets, Hillman said.

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