News

Critter Control?

And you thought the wolf home was bad

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Idaho's animal regulations are showing their lack of teeth. It's an issue that has been breeding for years, as animal management agencies stand in the gap between laws dictating which animals can be kept and the ability to enforce standards of care.

The seizure of wolves and bobcats from an Owyhee County home last week was just one example. But a less-publicized case sheds even more light on weird-animal regulation problems.

"It's a constant frustration," said Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society.

In Payette County, the challenges have been going on for more than five years, as officials from the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and two counties have dealt with For the Birds, a private zoo and elk farm in that county.

According to documents obtained by BW from the Idaho Department of Agriculture, the facility has been the subject of numerous investigations and legal actions. Public complaints range from concerns about the animals' health and care to elk carcasses that are left out or even put in garbage dumpsters.

Under state law, officials from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Agriculture can investigate anyone keeping exotic or wild animals, as well as claims of mistreatment, but they don't have the authority to do much about it (BW, News, "For the Birds," April 16, 2008).

Instead, it's up to local authorities to press charges. That doesn't always happen.

"Sometimes [it's because] there are no resources to do it," Rosenthal said. "It doesn't matter what it says on paper. Resources are 95 percent of it, [the] law is 5 percent," he said.

The federal government leaves it up to the states to deal with private ownership of exotic and wild animals. The USDA only takes the lead when an owner is involved in some kind of commercial venture, including exhibiting, breeding and transporting.

In 2002, the owner of For the Birds, Jerry Korn, lost his exhibitor's permit from the USDA for failure to renew, and his subsequent appeals were denied, according to state documents. At the same time, he lost his Large Commercial Wildlife Facility license from Fish and Game.

But despite the complaints, authorities were not able to take action, although Rosenthal said various agencies had a series of meetings to discuss what to do with the animals—including tigers, bears, an assortment of birds and even a giraffe—if For the Birds continued not to comply with standards.

"It was always looming over everyone's heads," Rosenthal said.

Those discussions reached the point that Zoo Boise was contacted about either taking or placing some of the animals, according to files from the Department of Agriculture requested by BW.

In 2004, Canyon County filed a petition to take control of the animals as part of a cruelty investigation, which was tied up in court proceedings.

Despite not having a license to do so, Korn reportedly not only bred several tiger cubs, but displayed them in public locations, including parking lots. There are several reports of children being bitten by those cubs.

In 2004, following a divorce, Korn sold his Canyon County land and moved his operation to Payette County, despite the fact that Payette County does not allow exotic animals. In 2006, Payette County filed a criminal complaint against Korn for violating the exotic animal ordinance. Korn pled not guilty.

That same year, Korn placed an ad on craigslist.com asking for any exotic animals that needed a new home. He offered to pay for shipment of animals to a newly relocated "zoo."

The Department of Agriculture filed complaints against Korn for numerous violations of state code, and last year he was ordered to pay both fines and legal fees totaling $24,341.

In her findings, hearing officer Jean Uranga stated, "The evidence in this case indicates that [Korn's] violations are serious. There is no evidence that [Korn] made any good faith effort to comply with the law."

On April 3 of this year, Korn had still not paid those fees and the Department of Agriculture sent him a letter requesting the payment of $25,307 in fees, fines and interest. The letter gave Korn 30 days to pay up before it turns the matter over to a debt-collection agency.

Korn could not be reached for comment before press time.

In the Owyhee County case, the owner of the wolves and bobcats had the right permits to have the animals, despite continuing concern about their care and public safety.

But state law limits Fish and Game inspectors to just verifying that each of the animals was properly registered, said Ed Mitchell, spokesman for Fish and Game. It was the Owyhee County Sheriff's Office that initiated the investigation.

The Humane Society removed 17 wolves, five bobcats and five dogs, three of which may be part wolf. The wolves are being placed in sanctuaries and the bobcats are going to zoos.

It's just the latest in a long line of exotic animal cases, which started with Ligertown, where, in 1995, 19 lion/tiger hybrids escaped a private zoo in Eastern Idaho.

While authorities had known about questionable conditions for years, no one could do anything until public safety was in danger. As a result, not only was Ligertown shut down, but the state adopted rules strictly outlining what animals are allowed in the state.

Exceptions are made for zoos, research and educational facilities, which come under the control of the USDA. Privately owned animals in Idaho must be registered, inventoried yearly and must be spayed or neutered.

But now, a court case is forcing officials at the state Department of Agriculture to re-examine their rules after a Nevada man sued for the right to bring an assortment of big cats into eastern Idaho.

The state denied a permit request from Peter Renzo, president of the Siberians are Becoming Rapidly Extinct Foundation in Carson City, Nev., stating that the cats must all be spayed or neutered. Renzo rejected the demand, saying the cats are all endangered.

Rosenthal stresses that the loopholes in existing laws need to be closed to focus on the welfare of animals. He would also like to see additional funding for agencies to be able to do more inspections.

But he believes that it will take activism on a grassroots level to get anything changed.

"It takes groups to pass laws," he said. "Government agencies are not the ones to forward laws."

Rosenthal said he's in favor of local communities being proactive and passing regulations regarding exotic species, since it seems harder to do at the state level.

"It's definitely not in the city's best interest to have an open-door policy with those animals," Rosenthal said.

The City of Boise has already enacted its own laws banning the possession of nearly all exotic or wild animals within city limits—a direct response to the For the Birds case, Rosenthal said.

"A lot of people have a romanticized notion of keeping wild animals, but it's problematic," he said. "One individual with a tiger farm deciding what he wants to do [is] not right.

"Sometimes [animal owners] just get over their heads," Rosenthal said. "Sometimes they're just crazy."