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Snyder vetoes looser rules on owning lions, tigers, bears

UPDATE 1-2-13: Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed two bills last week that would have changed the state’s Large Carnivore Act, but encouraged lawmakers to resubmit them with specific changes in the new session.

Bridge reported on the tie-barred Senate Bills 703 and 1236 last month (story below), which passed in the last hours of the Legislature’s session on Dec. 13. The first would have made it easier for private citizens to own lions, tigers, bears and other large cats. The second would have extended the age limit for the public to come in direct contact with bear cubs. The latter bill was written to allow visitors to an Upper Peninsula tourist attraction to touch and have their photos taken with black bear cubs up to nine months old. That story attracted attention from Wonkette, a satirical political site. 

In his veto letter to the Senate, Snyder said he supported the bear-petting bill, but had concerns about sections of the other ownership measure.

“I am concerned that other parts of the bills contradict the primary goal of the Large Carnivore Act to protect public health, public safety and animal welfare,” he wrote, specifically mentioning lifting prohibitions on breeding such animals.

“Completely eliminating the breeding prohibition and including Class A dealers in the statute's exemptions could lead to gaps in public health protection and animal welfare,” he said, before advising the legislators to resubmit the bear bill separately, and “continue to work with all stakeholders to respond to the desire to include other accreditations entities within the exemptions to the Large Carnivore Act while continuing to protect public health, public safety and animal welfare.”

Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said Wednesday he and co-sponsor Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, would likely take the governor's advice and try again in the new session.

It may seem strange waters to enter, only a year after the disastrous escapes of exotic animals from a private collection in Ohio. But one of the bills’ sponsors, Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, says Michiganians don’t have to fear a lion farm opening down the road.

“That dirtbag in Ohio would never, ever have been allowed to operate in Michigan under existing laws,” he said.

The existing law, passed in 2000, grandfathered in owners at the time, but prohibited most private ownership of large cats or bears. Under the new bill, any facility accredited by the Zoological Association of America could be eligible to import and exhibit bears, lions, tigers or other large carnivores. And it’s the ZAA – not the animals – that the measure’s opponents object to.

A battle of big vs. little?

The ZAA is a relatively new organization, formed in 2005 to “promote responsible ownership, management, conservation, and propagation of animals in both the private and public domains through professional standards in husbandry, animal care, safety and ethics,” according to its website. It has 43 accredited members, none in Michigan yet. It is not to be confused with the 223-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which includes most municipal zoos in Michigan.

“The confusion is that AZA and ZAA are basically two different things,” said Tara Harrison, veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo and an opponent of the legislation. “The AZA is the gold standard.” It is the accreditation body that recognizes the zoos most people visit, five in Michigan – Potter Park, the Detroit Zoo, John Ball Zoological Garden in Grand Rapids, Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and the Saginaw Children’s Zoo.

What's allowed?

Senate Bill 1236's defintion of a large carnivore includes:


Source: Michigan Legislature

The ZAA, Harrison said, is for smaller, frequently privately owned “roadside zoos” where visitors can not only see animals, but sometimes interact with them.

To differentiate the two, Harrison says, she points to the AZA’s 70-page application for accreditation, as well as numerous protocols pertaining to safety of animals, enclosures and visitors, veterinary care and more, while the ZAA’s, available on its website, “is three pages.”

AZA members, Harrison said, are charged with responsible care of animals from birth through death, and pledge to follow its Species Survival Plan program. Whereas the ZAA allows the breeding of, for example, “mutt tigers.”

Joe Maynard, who serves as accreditation chairman for the ZAA, describes the two organizations’ differences as more philosophical, crafted to the differences between large, publicly owned facilities and smaller, privately owned ones. Both are concerned with animal care, species survival, safety and conservation.

But many of the practices the AZA mandates, the ZAA makes voluntary.

Following the Species Survival Plan, for instance, is a requirement of AZA institutions, he said. The SSP dictates which animals may be bred, and which shouldn’t be. ZAA-accredited facilities are free to breed as they see fit.

Hune thinks the difference is also one of size and market. The AZA, to him, is the big-money, big-zoo club trying to quash the entrepreneurial upstarts who represent competition for not only visitors, but prestige. The use of the term “roadside zoo” is offensive to many who keep these smaller facilities, and rely on tourists or limited trading of animals to survive.

ZAA facilities, Hune claims, have never had a visitor harmed by an animal, which he contrasts to a recent incident at the AZA-accredited Pittsburgh Zoo, in which a 2-year-old boy was killed by a pack of wild African dogs after he fell into the animals’ enclosure.

All of which exasperates Harrison. To her, it’s very simple: These sorts of animals aren’t for just anyone, for a variety of reasons that came to a head in October 2011, when Terry Thompson of Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages of his personal zoo, then took his own life, leaving lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys free to roam the rural countryside.

By the time the roving menagerie was discovered, night was falling and police and Columbus Zoo officials made the call to shoot most of them.

After the incident, Ohio tightened its restrictions on private ownership of exotics, instituting a tough new law that bans the import, sale or breeding of big cats, bears and other species, and requiring current owners to register their animals. But it also included ZAA accreditation, along with the that of the AZA, among exempted facilities. Aspects of the law are being challenged in court.

“The Zanesville tragedy is a chilling example of what’s possible when dangerous animals are kept by private individuals,” reads a statement on the Detroit Zoo website.

Despite such opposition, the bills cleared the Legislature with comfortable margins.

Injuries caused by animals in public and private zoos are uncommon, but not unheard-of. An Iowa man was mauled by a tiger at the Cricket Hollow Zoo in 2011, an unaccredited facility. And a boy was attacked by a leopard at the AZA-accredited Sedgwick County Zoo.

Advocate’s own father injured

To Hune, who raises Bactrian camels on his parents’ farm outside Fowlerville in Livingston County, the Zanesville incident was an outlier, a rare and random act by a mentally unstable individual. Not that he would deny animals can be dangerous – in 2004 his father, David, suffered a skull fracture when one of his son’s camels picked him up by the head as he worked nearby.

“It wasn’t an attack,” said the younger Hune. “He just wanted attention.” The incident left the elder Hune with a plate in his head, but that didn’t dampen the family’s enthusiasm for exotic livestock; four camels still live on the farm, along with ponies, donkeys and a few head of cattle David Hune raises for freezer beef.

Majority of states have animal bans

Laws covering exotics vary around the country. Born Free USA, which generally opposes private ownership of exotic animals, maintains a website covering the state of current laws. Twenty-nine states have complete or partial bans, with others requiring permits, veterinary certificates or other regulatory measures.

Besides the AZA and ZAA accreditations, warm-blooded animals that are not farm livestock or pets may be regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said the act only covers those that are exhibited to the public for compensation, which covers zoos, circuses, petting farms and even stadium mascots. In Michigan, 104 entities and individuals have USDA licenses, which require regular unannounced inspections.

Bear photos influence policy

For years, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, in Newberry, allowed visitors to have their photos taken with cubs, a practice the facility suspended last summer after managers were told it was illegal under state law. The ranch, licensed by the USDA, takes in orphaned black bear cubs. The new law would have restricted human interaction to cubs younger than 36 weeks old or 90 pounds. Dean Oswald, the ranch’s owner, posted a letter on its website asking the governor to sign SB 1236, sponsored by Sen. Casperson.

“Bear cubs of 60 or 70 pounds can be dangerous,” said critic Harrison. “(Hune) called the Zanesville case one crazy person. Well, getting your picture with a bear cub is crazy.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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