Exotic animals bill has sanctuary operators roaring

Posted April 24, 2015 6:25 p.m. EDT
Updated April 28, 2015 5:09 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina is one of a handful of states with no state law regulating the ownership of exotic animals. A bill backed by a number of animal advocacy groups would change that, but some say it could put wildlife sanctuaries out of business.

House Bill 554 would prevent private ownership of dangerous, exotic animals. It is backed by the Humane Society, the state's Veterinary Medical Board and the North Carolina Zoo.

But the operators of the Conservators Center in Caswell County say they fear the legislation could force them to shut down. The sanctuary is home to 80 animals, including lions and tigers that were brought to the center from across the country after being rescued from abuse.

"We do find it unbelievable that we're at risk, but if you look at the words of this bill, that is a fact," said Julia Matson Wagner, assistant director of the Conservators Center. "Unfortunately, the way in which it has been drafted, there are many unintended consequences as a result of language issues."

Kim Alboum, North Carolina director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill targets individual owners and isn't meant to prey on places like the Conservators Center.

"First responders could literally walk into a backyard in some of our counties in North Carolina and find a tiger in a dogpen," Alboum said. "This bill grandfathers current, existing facilities just as long as they register with the county and agree to inspections by animal control and post signs for dangerous animals."

The Conservators Center is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts inspections.

Sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the language in the bill does need some revising, but he also said the aim isn't to shut down places like the Conservators Center. Previous efforts in the General Assembly to regulate wildlife owners have failed.