Pa. laws tougher on exotic animals

This bengal tiger soaks up some sun at T&D’s Cats of the World, Penns Creek, home to a number of exotic animals. State laws in Pennsylvania are much more stringent than those in Ohio, where an exotic animal owner recently released dozens of such animals. Photo by Chris Brady/Standard Journal.

How regulated is owning exotic animals, and can what happened on Tuesday around Zanesville, Ohio, with the estimated 48 animals which were set free by their owner happen in Pennsylvania?

Every state has its own set of laws when it comes to owning wild and exotic animals and Pennsylvania regulations are much more stringent than Ohio’s, Jennifer Mattive from T&D’s Cats of the World, Penns Creek, said. She also said unless it has changed recently, Ohio does not have state-wide regulations when it comes to the ownership of exotic animals, although each township could have its own.

Pennsylvania, on the other hand, Mattive said, has more stringent rules when it comes to exotic animal ownership.

T&D’s is an approved facility and licensed by the state and federal governments to house and exhibit wildlife. Mattive said that many of their animals are rescues from people owning exotic animals illegally.

According to Mattive, in 2003, T&D’s  helped to change state regulation to make it more strict by going to former Sen. Ed Helfrick, who was on the board responsible for changing regulations. She said she well remembers giving Helfrick a tour at T&D’s particularly when he walked through a barn and stood five feet from the tigers’ enclosure, looked at them and said “and we let people own these things?”

“It just took getting someone out from behind the desk and see it live,” Mattive said.

To be able to be an exotic animal owner now, according to Mattive, an individual has to go through certain regulatory hoops. They must be approved by their township, get a license from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and have proof of having experience with the species.

That proof, Mattive said, is obtained by having two years experience with that particular species of exotic animal at an approved or accredited facility with the facility’s owner or manager sending a letter stating that the person has this experience.

Monkeys though, Mattive said, are banned in Pennsylvania and since 2003, the game commission is not giving out permits for monkeys.

Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland, Allenwood, an accredited zoo, moves exotic animal exhibits throughout the U.S. and Canada, according to Owner Clyde Peeling and he said that given the wide variety of regulations from state to state, Reptiland needs almost a full-time person dedicated to making sure every ‘t’ is crossed and every ‘i’ is dotted.

California has more stringent laws than any other state, Peeling said and Florida is another one with tough rules.

According to Peeling, Florida’s previous exotic pet trade resulted in the problem of having some of the animals escape and establish themselves in the wild and the tougher laws are curbing more of that happening.

Peeling believes firmly in responsible ownership. He said that the solution is to hold the person responsible and made to show he or she is keeping the animal in safe humane way and if not, it’s a simple matter of shutting them down.

According to Peeling, Reptiland as an accredited zoo, gets inspected every five years by its peers, other zoo people.

“They go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, the amenities, the financial situation, that the animals are well cared and safe as well as the public, that the animals are not exploited, that the programs are educational,” Peeling said, “You can be a good zoo and not be accredited but we choose to do it.”

One of the dangers of private ownership, according to Peeling, is some owners have collectors’ syndrome.

“They think ‘I’ve got to have a leopard, or I have to have this or that,’” he said. These owners buy animals at auction, collect them and easily get in over their heads, Peeling said.

From various reports it appeared this may be what happened with Terry Thompson, owner of Thompson’s Muskingum County Animal Farm, who freed the animals and then shot himself.

“In Ohio, the doors (to the animals’ enclosures) were left open for them to wander out at their own pace. And it probably took them a while to wander out the door,” Mattive said explaining that an animal’s enclosure is its home with familiar smells and its feeling of security.

As to the danger to people, Mattive said, they were dealing with scared animals that were probably trying to hide.

Mattive said that the danger more than likely was minimal at first because the animals had been fed the day before so they weren’t too hungry and after they probably wouldn’t have gone after people.

“The longer (the animals) were away from their enclosures, the more scared they probably got,” Mattive said.

Peeling said that law enforcement officers probably talked about using tranquilizer guns but ruled it out given the lateness of the day.

“Tranquilizers take time and the animal can go some distance before it will drop,” Peeling said, “They probably discussed the possibility but finding animals in the dark without anyone getting hurt …”

Peeling said he anticipates people to be clamoring for more regulations with this latest tragedy.

“But laws can get way overboard when sensible solutions thought out by people who know the topic (should be heeded).  But with regulations, it is usually the one who screams the loudest which will get the attention,” Peeling said.

In regards to bengal tigers, both Mattive and Peeling agreed while the tiger is an endangered species, it breeds readily in captivity and there are probably more bengal tigers in the captivity than in the wild.

Mattive said from what she has read, there are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 bengal tigers left in the wild. Reports indicate as many as 18 were housed at the Ohio facility, all of which were killed.

Staff Writer Tammy Burke can be reached at or 570-742-9671.

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