Exotic animal bill worries owners
Some exotic pet owners are worried a bill that passed the state Senate last month could monkey with their lives.
Senate Bill 477 was passed Feb. 17. It requires state residents to obtain a permit before they can own, possess, breed or transport a wild or exotic animal.
As defined by the bill, "exotic animals" can include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fresh water fish.
The legislation was introduced to the House of Delegates on Feb. 20 but has not moved past the House Judiciary committee since that time.
The bill would require pet owners to pay $200 every other year to keep their animal permits. If owners failed to comply with the law, the state Division of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture or Bureau for Public Health would have the authority to confiscate the animals.
Those agencies also would have authority to quarantine or kill exotic animals if they were found to be a threat to public health, native wildlife or livestock.
Rhonda Kelly of Preston County is worried the new law might take away her marmosets Skeeter, who is 7 years old, and Spider, who is 2.
Kelly runs MarmosetMom.com, a site that sells clothing, food and diapers for the pint-sized primates. She said clients in other states are required to obtain permits for their marmosets, but that has never been the case in West Virginia.
"That's what I liked about West Virginia. I always felt like this is a free state. Now it feels like Big Brother's got their hands in our pockets here, too," she said. "Isn't this a free county? Don't we have rights?"
Kelly said half-pound animals like marmosets aren't a danger to anyone, and singling out exotic pets is unfair. Traditional pets like cats and dogs can be dangerous, too, she said.
"This is my choice on what pet I want. These animals are every bit as affectionate as a dog or a cat. Do you know how many people go to the hospital over cat bites? Cats are horrible," she said.
Kelly said she is particularly upset by language in the bill that would allow the state to take animals away from their owners.
"They're going to have to kill me first. These are my kids. And I'll protect them the same way I would protect my children," she said.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, introduced the exotic animals bill last month.
He said he introduced the legislation in reaction to the bizarre story of Terry Thompson, a Zanesville, Ohio, man who last year released over 50 tigers, lions, monkeys, leopards, bears and other exotic animals into his community before killing himself.
Kessler lives in Glen Dale, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Zanesville.
"It got a lot of press and play in my backyard," he said.
He said in the days following Thompson's dramatic suicide, he learned that West Virginia is one of only eight states without any restrictions on exotic animal ownership. Ohio also is on that list.
Kessler said this is the first time the state has tried to regulate exotic pets.
"If you register your car every couple years, you should have to register your exotic animals," he said.
Kessler said the bill would make West Virginia's exotic animal regulations comparable to other states' laws.
"This is for big huge animals, mostly. Lions, tigers and bears. If they're big enough to rip your face off, those are the kind of things that probably ought not to be running around."
Kessler said Kelly should not be concerned: Marmosets likely won't make the list of restricted animals.
"I'm not even sure it would be considered a dangerous animal," Kessler said.
DNR officials will prepare the list of exotic animals affected by the bill only when it is signed into law. But Kessler said a preliminary list of restricted animals, which was eventually left out of the bill recently passed by the Senate, did not include marmosets.
Larger primates like orangutans, chimps, gorillas, baboons and mandrills were on the list.
Kelly said she has attempted to contact every state senator through letters, emails and phone calls. Three of the senators' offices responded. Two secretaries promised to pass her message on to their respective lawmaker. Only Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, has personally responded to Kelly's complaints.
"Thank you, there is always a rush to judgment when a catastrophe happens (i.e. Ohio Man that turned 50+ exotics loose before killing himself) and several smaller groups are hurt by those actions," Nohe wrote in an email sent from his iPhone.
"I will try and help as much as I can to preserve your rights. God Bless," the email continued.
Kelly said she and her exotic animal-loving friends would challenge the bill in court if it became law.
"We're currently looking for an attorney," she said.