Tuesday, June 2, 2009

As wild pet ban dies, state declares exotic animal amnesty

Pro-Animal Legislation Failure in Conn.;

Move comes as wild pet legislation dies
By Ken Dixon
and Brian Lockhart
Posted: 05/29/2009 09:45:18 PM EDT
Updated: 05/30/2009 02:59:04 AM EDT

HARTFORD -- Legislation that would have banned a long list of wild and potentially dangerous animals as pets has failed in the General Assembly this year because lawmakers from Litchfield County want to protect a family-owned farm that has several elephants.

But the state Department of Environmental Protection hopes residents will voluntarily turn over questionable pets on July 25 at an "exotic animal amnesty day" at Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.

The wild animal ban was drafted this year after Travis, a 200-pound chimp nearly mauled a friend of his owner's to death in Stamford.

Although the state in 2004 passed limited regulations on exotic pets, Travis was grandfathered because he was a local celebrity.

The proposed ban would have targeted animals large and small, from primates and big cats to certain snakes, tarantulas and scorpions. Only some small monkeys known to be kept by families in the state would have been grandfathered into the ban.

State Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the legislature's Environment Committee, said Friday the ban will be abandoned because there was disagreement over the continued keeping of pachyderms at the Commerford Farm in Goshen.

"It's dead because there's a piece that was put into the bill that would have not allowed the Commerford family to bring in any new elephants in the years ahead, thereby, essentially closing the business down, which Mr. Commerford, I'm told, was going to being



passing off to his family," Roy said.

The farm has several elephants, a petting zoo and a variety of exotic animals including zebras and camels that Commerford drives to fairs and malls up and down the East Coast.

Roy said Goshen-area lawmaker, state Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican, and state Rep. Roberta Willis, a Democrat, fought the change.

"The Commerford Farm is a community fixture up in Goshen and it would be sad to see that business have to terminate what it does as it moves into the future," Willis said.

Even though the session ends at midnight June 3, Roy said the bill will not go forward because of it will consume too much time.

"You'll just have a huge debate and I think a huge debate on animal issues would be very, very poor form, especially since we don't have a budget yet," Roy said. "I am disappointed because this was a chance to do something positive. There are a lot of animals that are being kept for pets that shouldn't be; little alligators and all of that and they become dangerous animals, so we should not have those in someone's living room.

State Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said he was surprised by the bill's failure.

"The legislation is extraordinarily important and I understand that there were concerns expressed by some legislators, but there's certainly no excuse for not coming up with a reasonable compromise that would assure the safety of the people of our state," he said.

The Commerford dispute was not the only cause of the bill's failure.

Different lawmakers were pursuing a variety of amendments to the bill, from grandfathering existing exotic animals to legalizing bow hunting on Sundays.

"I was hoping we were going to be able to work something out on this but there were too many competing interests," said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, an animal rights activist and critic of Commerford. She also was sponsoring the amendment to let owners keep their wild pets.

Urban said lawmakers had not explained what pet owners were supposed to do should the ban go into effect and feared many creatures would be hidden, released into the wild or even killed.

DEP spokesman Denis Schain said the agency was aware the exotic animal ban "could be dead" but that was not related to Friday's sudden announcement of the amnesty day at Beardsley Zoo.

"We've been discussing it with Beardsley and got it organized and wanted to announce it," Schain said. "Given the attention the issue has had we thought it was a positive step and good program to put in place."

According to the DEP, the amnesty day will "provide a convenient, safe and 'no questions asked' way for people to bring in exotic animals they may own legally or in possible violation of state law."

Zoo director Gregg Dancho said: "We get a lot of people calling us all the time about (exotic) pets that have worn out their welcome. . . . We're trying to utilize this day as an education process to get people to think about what they're doing before they buy something they may not be able to handle."

Dancho said he supported the concept of a wild animal ban and hoped lawmakers could work on refining the bill for next session.

"Talk to us, talk to other professionals," Dancho said. "Can you legislative out all types of pets? Some people know how to take care of them. . . . But the problem becomes where do you draw the line?" Dancho said. "A tarantula -- we use them in our education programs. Most are not a deadly species."

Urban was pleased to learn of the amnesty day and preferred that approach to any hastily crafted ban.

"Government starts the ball rolling, it gets picked up and we don't have to legislate that quickly," Urban said.


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