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Exotic pets out of control

By Lisa Sandberg

San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 04/13/2003

Though heartbroken by the fatal shooting of a 400-pound African lioness last week, Carol Asvestas of the Wild Animal Orphanage has no doubt she soon will be beseeched to rescue yet another abandoned lion, tiger or bear — adding to the 600 wild animals she already has.

Carol Asvestas, head of the Wild Animal Orphanage, reflects on the fate of a caged lioness in her custody.
Gloria Ferniz/Express-News

African lionesses like Hannah may be rare in the wild, but in captivity they are as plentiful as cotton-tailed bunnies.

And each year in Texas, hundreds of dangerous wild animals, many former "pets," end up at the doorsteps of animal sanctuaries. Some are abandoned by drug dealers, others are tossed out by nervous parents who suddenly realize their tiger cub isn't as cuddly as he once was.

"Breeders tell you that if you raise them from tiny babies, they will stay (docile) and litter-trained," Asvestas said. "By eight months, they start tearing up furniture, so they get relegated to a cage in the back yard. When something goes wrong, they call the Wild Animal Orphanage."

An 18-month-old Texas law that was supposed to regulate the booming "backyard wild pet" trade has been largely ignored, animal welfare advocates say.

Much of the problem, they said, lies with the counties, which have essentially turned their backs on the 2001 law requiring them to either regulate or prohibit the ownership of wild animals.

"The counties have been very slow in setting up their ordinances, and many that have ordinances are not enforcing them," said Skip Trimble, a Dallas lawyer who worked with the Texas Humane Legislation Network to pass the state's Dangerous Wild Animal Act. "The counties have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye."

The Department of Health has paperwork on only 101 wild captive animals in the state. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association estimates there are between 4,000 and 5,000 "pet" tigers alone in Texas.

"The numbers are just staggering," said Cindy Carroccio, director of the Austin Zoo, a sanctuary for 300 rescued animals. "There's almost nothing stopping Mr. Joe Breeder from selling a wild cat to a man in downtown Dallas. You can buy a cub tiger for $75 over the Internet.

"If I built an enclosure a day, I would fill it," Carroccio added. "We average 60 to 100 calls a month; 70 to 80 percent of those are from private owners."

According to Trimble's group, of Texas' 254 counties, 27 allow anyone to own a wild animal as long as it is registered; 39 counties, including Bexar, prohibit ownership except under limited circumstances; and 15 have failed to either prohibit or ban the practice. Another 173 counties have banned wild pets entirely, Trimble said, but many of those have done nothing to enforce the measure.

Where Bexar County stands in all this is unclear. The county adopted a middle-of-the-road approach, opting to ban most dangerous animals but exempting those, for example, that travel in circuses and others in sanctuaries, research labs or under the care of a veterinarian.

Officials at the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, which is charged with enforcing the county's ban, said they haven't confiscated any dangerous animals since the law went into effect because they haven't received any reports of dangerous animals kept in captivity.

"I don't know of any seizures of any exotic animals in recent years," Capt. Kenneth Bilhartz said, acknowledging that authorities often learn about exotic pets when one escapes, is injured or someone complains.

When Asvestas and her husband, Ron, began rescuing animals in the early 1980s, they didn't have to worry about big cats. Backyard wild animals had not become fashionable. But by the early 1990s, the wild pet problem "exploded," she said. "Cougars were the rage then, followed by lions and tigers. Then, about three years ago, it was bears. Nothing but bears."

Now, bobcats, Bengali tigers, baboons, pigtail macaques and Russian grizzly bears are among the 600 exotics housed in enclosures of up to two acres on two tracts of land totaling 112 acres.

Desperate pet owners account for about half the calls Asvestas receives. Breeders and roadside zoos make up most of the rest.

"There are people who believe that they're saving an endangered species," she said. "They don't understand that the ones born in captivity can't replace the ones in the wild."

Now facing overcrowding at the orphanage, Asvestas has begun turning animals away.

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