CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia just achieved a milestone in animal welfare and public safety legislation. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (HB 4393) into law March 25, ending the state's status as one of only six states with no restrictions on exotic pets.Introduced by Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, this law bans the future private possession of all "wild and exotic animals" in the state. It creates a Dangerous Wild Animal Board to develop a comprehensive list of these animals. It also addresses the problem of "roadside zoos" by requiring exhibitors with exotic animals to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.Thousands of people purchase wild animals each year, bringing untamed wildlife into their homes and forcibly trying to assimilate them to a domestic lifestyle. But these animals are inherently unsuited for private ownership. Wildlife belongs in the wild, and captivity is both cruel to the animal and poses a significant threat to public safety.Imagine a monkey trapped in a basement for 15 years, with no sunlight or other monkeys to play with. Imagine a tiger cub who is purchased as a baby, but spends his adult years languishing inside a cage with no protection from the weather.Exotic pets are typically isolated and deprived of the ability to express their natural behaviors. Private owners often extract the animals' teeth and fingernails, and the animals are frequently tethered, chained, or caged - all in an attempt to "tame" them. They are mutilated and mistreated in the name of so-called companionship.
The strength and unpredictability inherent to most wild animals also creates a serious danger for the owners and the community. Born Free USA maintains a database that tracks incidents involving exotic pets (bornfreeusa.org
). Since 2000, multiple incidents have been reported in West Virginia of exotic pets escaping and threatening public safety. In Huntington, a 13-year-old girl suffered injuries after being bitten by a "pet" capuchin monkey. In Berkeley County, a monkey, who was suspected of having hepatitis B, bit three children. In Charles Town, nine Savannah cats and a serval were found in a house, and one of the cats bit a police officer. Wild and exotic animals can not only injure people, but can pose a serious disease risk. Primates can transmit Ebola, tuberculosis, and herpes B to humans.These types of tragic incidents strain community resources. Often, local police departments, which are poorly equipped to handle wild animals, are forced to respond to animals who escape or are abandoned by their owners. One high-profile instance occurred in Zanesville, Ohio, when a man released 56 exotic animals from his private farm. The incident cost the local police department $8,000 in overtime, and was traumatic for the police officers and entire community.Nonprofit organizations, such as Born Free USA, must also deal with the consequences of exotic pet ownership, because sanctuaries become the dumping grounds for unwanted animals. The Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary is familiar with the burden of limited resources, as this sanctuary, and many others, are strained further by each new animal who has nowhere else to go. This prohibition on future private ownership of exotic animals will greatly reduce the overwhelming responsibility that sanctuaries must bear.Born Free USA celebrates the compassion that West Virginia legislators demonstrated by passing HB 4393, because no animal deserves to suffer such a horrifying fate, and no bystander deserves to be attacked. This law brings us one step closer to ensuring that such tragedies are history.Kate Dylewsky is a program assistant at Born Free USA.