County officials are asking the state to review how it governs public possession of lions, tigers and other exotic animals.
North Carolina is one of eight states that do not regulate the possession of exotic animals. State law, rather, entitles county and municipal governments to handle the issue — something officials say is inconsistent and could cause safety issues in an emergency.
Catawba County’s regulations don’t allow county residents to keep exotic animals — which include lions, tigers, bears, bison and dangerous reptiles — but those ordinances have no authority in the eight municipalities within the county.
Municipal governments have their own regulations about harboring exotic animals, but those differ from the county’s rules as well as from town to town. Though most area municipalities don’t allow exotic animal possession either, there are several permitted petting zoos and animal parks in the Greater Hickory area that can house exotic animals.
The O-N-E contacted several of these parks — including Buffalo Beals Animal Park in Maiden and Circle C Petting Farm in Newton — for information about safety precautions for exotic animals. Calls were not returned. Buffalo Beals says on its website that it houses "elk, antelope, camel, giraffe, chimpanzee, buffalo, kangaroos, various monkeys...and many other exotic and domestic animals."
Animal Services Director Jay Blatche said the inconsistent ordinances from area to area could pose a safety problem in the case of an emergency situation.
The way things are set up currently, a Bengal tiger, for example, could move into Newton, Claremont or any municipality without Animal Services having a clue, he said.
“It would become a problem if a town had a tiger or pet bear and that animal got loose in the public,” Blatche said. “Right now, I don’t have the equipment to take down that animal properly or tranquilize that animal.”
In the case of an escape or other animal emergency, each municipality is responsible for handling exotic animal control in its area. However, the county — the area’s largest animal control facilitator — is usually called to assist in emergency situations.
“The state may give you a license for a petting zoo, but the county may not know about that,” Blatche said. “Right now, the counties should have some responsibility to know what’s in their county in order to be able to go out and do their job properly.”
Blatche said the county’s interest in the state’s exotic animal regulations stemmed from a recent incident in Zanesville, Ohio, where 56 exotic animals escaped from a local farm. Due to safety concerns at the time, authorities killed 49 of the animals, including lions, tigers and bears.
Ohio, like North Carolina, is one of the states that have no legislation that strictly regulates the possession, breeding and selling of exotic animals.
North Carolina has had its own issues with exotic animals over the years, but state regulations have yet to increase.
One of the most recent incidents occurred on Jan. 8, 2005, when two tiger cubs were found wandering along a highway on the Gaston and Cleveland county border and were captured. While it still isn’t clear why the cubs were roaming, authorities assumed they were released by a disinterested owner trying to get rid of the female tigers.
In January 2004, a 14-year-old girl was mauled by her father’s “pet” tiger while she was inside the cage taking pictures. After the incident, her father shot and killed all four tigers he owned.
Despite past incidents, the state has not changed its regulations much and simply requires permits and health certificates for some species of exotic animals, according to North Carolina administrative code. Other regulations are up to the counties to decide.
“The biggest issue is inconsistency from location to location,” said Bryan Blanton, director of Catawba County Emergency Services. “If someone wants to own an exotic animal, it would be much simpler if there was one standard for the entire state."