Animal park owner fears big cats ban
Posted: October 3, 2012
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — The owner of a local animal park is worried that proposed federal legislation could hurt his business.
Keith Wilson, 49, has owned Wilson’s Wild Animal Park since the late 1990s after taking it over from his parents, who opened the facility in 1976.
Located at 985 W. Parkins Mill Road in Frederick County — just southeast of Winchester — the park has more than 200 mammals, birds and reptiles.
A lion and a tiger are two of the park’s biggest attractions. But it would lose the animals under the “Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act,” introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate this year with bipartisan sponsors.
The legislation has been described as a response to an Oct. 18, 2011, incident in Zanesville, Ohio, where a local resident released dozens of exotic animals — including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys — before committing suicide. Law enforcement officers had to kill many of the freed animals.
A news release issued by the International Fund for Animal Welfare on Sept. 17 states: “It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats currently held in private ownership in the U.S. In the past two decades, more than 300 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have resulted in the deaths of 21 people (including five children) and close to 250 additional humans have been mauled or injured. In addition, scores of big cats have been killed.”
The legislation calls for outlawing the possession of large cats such as lions and tigers by private individuals and many businesses, except at zoos and wildlife sanctuaries accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Wilson’s Wild Animal Park does not have AZA accreditation.
If passed, Wilson said, the bill could be used to restrict ownership of other animals in addition to large cats — and that the restrictions would severely hamper his park’s profitability.
“[The proposal] would ban any large cats — lions, tigers, [even] bears, large primates, anything that [the government] would deem to be dangerous,” Wilson said. “Effectively, if that were ever to pass, it would basically close down every private zoo in the country, or at least prevent them from having anything that people will pay to come in to see.”
House Bill 4122 was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources on March 1.
The Senate legislation was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Sept. 13.
No additional action on the legislation has been scheduled and Congress has adjourned. The proposal would have to be reintroduced in the new Congress that is to convene early 2013.
Wilson’s Wild Animal Park currently has a young male lion and a young female white tiger, and there are plans to add a female lion cub and male tiger cub in the near future.
The white tiger, which was acquired recently, came from an owner in Ohio who could no longer keep it due to more restrictive laws being passed in that state.
The park’s wildlife also includes Himalayan bears, baboons and monkeys.
In the more than 30 years Wilson’s family has owned the park, he said there has never been an incident where a dangerous animal has escaped.
Animal parks and similar establishments across the country are currently regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Federal inspectors typically visit facilities like Wilson’s Wild Animal Park once or twice a year, in addition to whenever a complaint is filed, and check on the health and safety of animals, how medication and food for animals is handled and stored and what kind of facilities the animals are kept in, Wilson said.
“That guy [the Ohio suspect] had no USDA license,” Wilson said. “There’s a part of the USDA code that says if you’re not [keeping exotic animals] for profit, if you’re not an exhibitor or a dealer or a breeder, if you just have [these animals] as pets, they don’t regulate you. He claimed that [his animals] were pets, but he was a dealer. Instead of the USDA doing their part and going out and investigating to whether he was actually selling, he said, ‘They’re my pets, I don’t need a license,’ and [the USDA] said ‘OK’ and they never followed up with it.
“The regulations that are in place, if everybody followed them, are very sufficient,” he added.
Wilson also questions restricting animal ownership for large cats to AZA-accredited facilities.
“Under the USDA, [AZA-accredited and unaccredited facilities] have the same standards,” he said. “There’s a set of minimum standards that we have to meet and that the accredited zoos have to meet.”
— Contact Matt Armstrong at email@example.com