Limits to exotic pets in Wisconsin loom, but critics cite several loopholes

Many fear proposed exemptions would limit the bill’s impact in a state where nearly any nonnative creature can be kept as a pet

Grey Satterfield IV/Curb Magazine

This lion is one of dozens of big cats at Valley of the Kings, a wildlife sanctuary in Sharon. Many of the animals there were abandoned or surrendered by owners who kept them as pets. If Senate Bill 241 passes, banning ownership of "dangerous" exotic pets in Wisconsin, the lion pictured would not be affected because it resides in a sanctuary.

On the Radio

Reporter Haley Henschel of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism talks with Milwaukee Public Radio about the Center’s Exotic and Exploited? series, which examines Wisconsinites’ relationships with exotic animals and efforts to regulate them.

Thirty minutes outside the Wisconsin Dells’ maze of flumes, rollercoasters, go-kart tracks and the duck boats plying the Wisconsin River, Jasmine is something of a minor local celebrity.

“I go to the pharmacy at ShopKo here in town and (people are) always, ‘Where’s Jasmine? Bring her in to see us!’ ” said her caretaker, Melanie Nawrot, 36, whose small capuchin monkey lives with her family in the city of Adams. “We go on the lake with her, a lot of 4-H clubs and Boy Scouts come and see her.”

Jasmine has been under the care of Nawrot since she was two days old after being rejected by her mother. Jasmine, who could live to be 45 years old, might outlive her and Narwot said she has made provisions for the family’s pet in her will.

But Jasmine is also a wild animal. Owning a monkey, or almost any other nonnative animal species, is currently legal in Wisconsin. It is among five states — Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina are the others — that have no bans on owning “dangerous” exotic animals.

Exotics map 2015

Humane Society of the United States

A bipartisan measure making its way through the state Legislature would change that. Senate Bill 241 would ban ownership, breeding and sale of “dangerous” exotic animals including nonnative big cats, nonnative bears, apes and crocodilians. A companion measure, Assembly Bill 333, also has been introduced.

Exotic pets not affected by the proposal include venomous snakes and constrictors, monkeys including baboons and marsupials such as kangaroos.

White-faced capuchin monkeys are among several primate species kept as pets. Babies are sold in the United States for thousands of dollars each. The species is one of many exotic animals that would still be allowed to be kept as pets in Wisconsin even if Senate Bill 241 becomes law.

Monica Hall / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

White-faced capuchin monkeys are among several primate species kept as pets. Babies are sold in the United States for thousands of dollars each. The species is one of many exotic animals that would still be allowed to be kept as pets in Wisconsin even if Senate Bill 241 becomes law.

Current owners of banned pets, such as tigers, lions and chimpanzees, would be allowed to keep their animals under the bill. Veterinarians, accredited and municipal zoos, circuses, federally licensed research facilities and wildlife sanctuaries also would be exempt, as would Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

Owners who violate the law would be subject to a $1,000 fine. If a dangerous exotic pet caused property damage or attacked someone, the owner could face a $2,000 fine.

The ban would not affect Melanie Nawrot or Jasmine, nor would it prohibit Nawrot from keeping her other exotic pets — a ring-tailed lemur and a pair of marmosets, another type of monkey.

And, as far as Nawrot can tell, SB 241 also would not immediately threaten Monkey Mommy LLC, the business through which she breeds, sells and offers monkeys for hire at special events and educational programs. Nawrot holds a dealer’s license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nonetheless, Nawrot opposes the legislation. She said local governments in Wisconsin can and sometimes do pass their own regulations, and that is good enough.

“I personally think we’ve been doing a really good job in Wisconsin with exotic animal owners,” she said, adding, “Why fix something that’s not broken?”

Bill, changes debated

SB 241, proposed by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, was the subject of a hearing Oct. 1. The most passionate testimony centered on a not-yet-introduced amendment that some argued would weaken the bill.

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, has proposed Senate Bill 241 following reports of a “lion-like” creature, thought to be an exotic pet, roaming Milwaukee. The bill would ban the ownership, breeding and sale of “dangerous” exotics, including nonnative big cats, nonnative bears, apes and crocodilians. Wisconsin is one of five states that currently does not have a ban on keeping exotic pets.

Thomas Yonash / The Daily Cardinal

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, has proposed Senate Bill 241 following reports of a “lion-like” creature, thought to be an exotic pet, roaming Milwaukee. The bill would ban the ownership, breeding and sale of “dangerous” exotics, including nonnative big cats, nonnative bears, apes and crocodilians. Wisconsin is one of five states that currently does not have a ban on keeping exotic pets.

The amendment would remove a provision forbidding members of the public from coming into direct contact with dangerous exotics, and exempt members of the Zoological Association of America as well as people and facilities licensed by the USDA.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported in August about lax and fragmented oversight of exotic animal owners in Wisconsin, including by the USDA.

Three of the 15 speakers testified against the bill, including the executive director of the ZAA, the park director of Wisconsin’s only ZAA-accredited zoo, and a nonprofit reptile rescue and educational group. Out of those three, both ZAA-affiliated speakers said they would support the legislation if the amendment were added.

The 12 speakers testifying in favor of the bill included the owner of a big cat rescue organization, a wildlife rehabilitator, a veterinary assistant, animal advocates and zoo directors.

Even some proponents warned, however, that the measure contains loopholes that would make enforcement difficult. Some also told the committee that the proposed changes would gut the bill, leaving the state’s lenient approach to exotic animals largely intact. One speaker, Renee Benell of Fitchburg, questioned why other species such as snakes and monkeys were not included in the ban.

SB 241 exotic animal graphic

Haley Henschel / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Dean Collins, Brookfield’s assistant police chief, told lawmakers the law would be “unenforceable” because it does not authorize officers to arrest owners who violate it. Collins also said unless the bill is amended to create a statewide database of animals, authorities will not be able to determine the owners of animals that escape or are released.

The amendment to exempt certain licensees and allow public contact with dangerous exotics has not been formally introduced yet, said Valirie Maxim, a Wanggaard staffer. The senator’s chief of staff, Scott Kelly, said the bill likely will get a vote near the end of October in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Wanggaard has said the measure was partially inspired by reports of a lion-like creature near Milwaukee, thought to be an escaped or released exotic pet, and a 2013 incident in which police and the Racine Zoo discovered rattlesnakes, alligators, crocodiles, a snapping turtle and a Gila monster in a Kenosha home.

Push for stricter bill

Melissa Tedrowe, the Wisconsin state director for the Humane Society of the United States, attended the hearing and said she hopes to work with lawmakers to refine elements of SB 241, particularly its grandfather clause.

This baboon in a reinforced dog kennel at the Dane County Humane Society was surrendered by a Madison man in 2011. Some advocates say Wisconsin’s current exotic pet laws, among the most lax in the country, encourage ownership of animals unsuitable for domestic life. Under a bill currently before the Legislature, baboons would continue to be allowed as pets.

Steve Apps / Wisconsin State Journal

This baboon in a reinforced dog kennel at the Dane County Humane Society was surrendered by a Madison man in 2011. Some advocates say Wisconsin’s current exotic pet laws, among the most lax in the country, encourage ownership of animals unsuitable for domestic life. Under a bill currently before the Legislature, baboons would continue to be allowed as pets.

Under the bill, people who owned dangerous exotic animals at the time the bill went to effect could keep their pets, but would be required to pay a fee and register the animals with their municipality. Enforcement of the law would be the responsibility of local governments, and owners would be required to notify local authorities if their dangerous exotic pet escaped.

In an interview, Tedrowe recommended that in cases in which existing exotic pets are grandfathered in, Wisconsin lawmakers should require owners to have a minimum five acres of land, have at least two years’ experience caring for such an animal or pass a written exam on caring for the species.

Tedrowe also said lawmakers should require exotic pet owners exempted under the grandfather clause to carry liability insurance in case the animal harms anyone or causes damage. In addition, she suggested any owner of a “dangerous” exotic pet be at least 21 years old and that all such pets be microchipped “unless a veterinarian says it’s not a good idea.”

Chuck Wikenhauser, director of the Milwaukee County Zoo, said in an interview that he was surprised to find out lawmakers were already considering an amendment. On behalf of all five Wisconsin zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Wikenhauser testified in favor of the bill but against the proposed amendment to allow people to come in contact with the animals and exempt those with licenses from the USDA or accreditation through the ZAA.

“A lot of roadside zoos or zoos that are less than adequate as far as their ability to manage animals with modern zoological standards have USDA licenses, and it doesn’t necessarily qualify them or make them prime candidates to home some of these dangerous exotic animals,” Wikenhauser said.

The Milwaukee zoo belongs to the AZA, an organization that Wikenhauser, who chairs the group’s accreditation commission, said has been the professional standard recognized by the federal and state governments for many years. Members of that organization, including the Racine Zoo where Wanggaard is a board member, are already exempt under SB 241.

Animals including this dwarf caiman would not be allowed to be kept as pets in Wisconsin if a bill before the Legislature becomes law. This caiman was released from captivity in March in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon after authorities in that country seized it.

Monica Hall / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Animals including this dwarf caiman would not be allowed to be kept as pets in Wisconsin if a bill before the Legislature becomes law. This caiman was released from captivity in March in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon after authorities in that country seized it.

But Zoological Association of America executive director Alan Smith, who opposes the bill unless it is amended, said in an email that “there are really no important differences” in terms of animal welfare and public safety between facilities accredited by the two associations. The ZAA lists Wildwood Wildlife Park and Nature Center in Minocqua, which is also licensed by the USDA, as its only Wisconsin member.

But Wikenhauser said broadening the exemption “waters down the bill.”

“If (the bill) is amended to include all of that,” he said, “I don’t think it’s going to accomplish what (lawmakers) had hoped it would.”