For the Birds

How Idaho's mishmash of exotic animal regulations opens the gates to problems


It seemed like a scene out of a movie. After mauling their owner, a pride of ligers escaped their enclosure, leaving a small-town police force to track and eventually kill the big cats.

They may have been Napoleon Dynamite's pretty much favorite animal, but the 1995 escape of 19 lion/tiger hybrids from "Ligertown" near Lava Hot Springs shined a harsh light on the lack of regulations governing exotic animals in Idaho.

The animals, and 27 others, were kept in poor conditions in what amounted to a roadside attraction. Their enclosures were little more than chicken wire and wood. Many of the animals were malnourished.

In response to the incident, the state created a new set of regulations around the possession, importation, breeding and exhibition of exotic animals. The rules were adopted in 2004. Now a recent lawsuit against the state by a Nevada man who wants to relocate his assortment of endangered big cats to Eastern Idaho may change things.

Peter Renzo, president of the Siberians are Becoming Rapidly Extinct Foundation in Carson City, Nev., asked to move his operation to Idaho in October 2007. The Idaho Department of Agriculture rejected the request unless Renzo agreed to spay and neuter his animals. Citing the fact that they're endangered, Renzo refused and filed his lawsuit earlier this year.

Last week, Seventh District Court Judge Ted Wood ordered that the Idaho Department of Agriculture adopt new rules for those who want to breed potentially dangerous exotic animals in the state.

The decision doesn't allow Renzo to open his proposed Idaho location, but it does leave state officials trying to figure out how to change their rules.

As of late last week, the Department of Agriculture hadn't seen the actual ruling, according to acting state veterinarian Bill Barton.

Up until 2004, there were few rules regarding exotic-animal ownership besides individual city ordinances.

The federal government leaves regulating these animals largely up to individual states, although states sometimes delegate that authority to the county level. Unless the counties do adopt rules, there's little to stop someone from buying a liger.

The United States Department of Agriculture only has authority in cases where an animal owner is using exotic animals for some kind of commercial purpose, whether it be for public exhibits, breeding, transportation or research. The USDA issues permits for these uses.

But when it comes to pets, there is no federal oversight, according to Jim Rogers, spokesman for the agency.

Most people, government and humane society officials alike, assume that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has authority over exotic animals.

"We don't," said Ed Mitchell, Fish and Game spokesman. "What regulation there is, is up to [the Department of] Agriculture."

Instead, Fish and Game agencies across the country are often left to deal with the problems that come from exotic animals. In Idaho, that included dealing with the loose ligers. Other states are facing growing issues with invasive species. Among the worst is Florida, where game wardens are waging an ongoing battle with pet owners who are dumping massive snakes in the Everglades.

Under Idaho's regulations, the Department of Agriculture has the authority to give Fish and Game the job of taking over exotic-animal permitting, although that has yet to happen.

The creation of the state regulations did provide some needed guidance when it comes to exotic species, including just which animals are considered exotic. The long list of prohibited animals includes nearly all big cats, red and sika deer, Barbary sheep, kinkajou and all primates.

"That's the reason for having this list in the first place," Barton said. "[Exotic animals are] deemed to pose potential threats to wildlife, the agriculture industry or the environment, and public safety."

The regulations make exceptions for entities like zoos and research facilities, which have to be permitted by both the state and the USDA, as well as meet accreditation standards.

But even with the rules in place, that doesn't mean there aren't privately owned exotic animals in Idaho. The regulations grandfathered in animals already in Idaho, but required owners to declare the animals to state authorities and provide annual updates, so the state can keep track of them.

Of course, that's only if the owner went though the process of formally permitting the animal in the first place.

There are also those who try to sneak exotic animals into the state. Barton said the most frequent subjects of such smuggling are monkeys of all varieties.

Idaho's cold winters prevent many exotic species from being able to survive in the wild. But Barton said there are some that pose serious threats to wildlife.

"It's not been a problem to this point, and we'd certainly like to keep it that way," he said.

While the state's exotic-animal rules have addressed concerns about what's coming into the state, they don't really deal with how those animals already in Idaho are treated.

While state officials are allowed to inspect where exotic animals are kept, they are not allowed to take action against owners who are not properly caring for the animals.

Barton said state regulations, as written, allow cases of animal welfare only to be inspected, but it's up to the individual counties to take cases of animal abuse to court.

It's this hole in the state law that Sarah Stovall is trying to fix.

In 2003, Stovall began her personal campaign against For the Birds, a private game park just outside of Nampa.

Stovall worked for the facility as both an employee and a volunteer for six years but became increasingly disillusioned with the treatment of the animals. She left the facility and began to push for new state laws.

She claimed the owners of For the Birds were not providing adequate care for their animals, which have included tigers, a giraffe, camel, zebra, lemurs and a snow leopard over the years. Her claims included keeping the animals in unsanitary conditions and improper medical care.

While years have passed, For the Birds is still under investigation. Barton confirmed as much but declined to comment further.

The facility has since moved out of Canyon County and into Payette County, but Stovall has continued her crusade.

She hopes to write new legislation that would allow state authorities to remove animals if there were questions about the animals' safety.

Barton said he doesn't personally understand the attraction of exotic animals.

"I'm not going to begin to try to get inside their heads," he said. "It's the uniqueness of some of these things. They draw a lot of attention, but [people] don't stop to think of all the bad potential."