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Creatures banned, allowed on state’s dangerous animal list baffles experts

By Dave Boucher, Capitol Bureau Chief
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
While the Danger Wild Animals Act would allow West Virginia residents to own gorillas, a draft list of critters the measure prohibits includes alpacas, hedgehogs and the sugar glider — a relative of the flying squirrel.

If a pending proposal from state health and wildlife officials becomes law, it will be easier to legally buy a handgun in West Virginia than a hedgehog.

Along with alpacas and sugar gliders, the prickly mammals are some of the more commonly owned animals included in the first draft of the state’s dangerous wild animal list.

Most animals on the list — required by recently adopted legislation — wouldn’t raise eyebrows: several types of pythons, crocodiles, tigers, elephants, whales and many other exotic animals would be prohibited.

But other animals on the list surprised Summer Wyatt, state director for the Humane Society. Specifically exempting other notable animals from the list — like gorillas, chimpanzees and zebras — also caught her off guard.

“That’s really bizarre, because those would be the ones you would worry the most about,” Wyatt said, referring to the gorillas and chimpanzees.

“Even a 30-pound monkey can be really dangerous for humans.”

Right now, there’s no state law preventing someone from owning a gorilla as a pet in West Virginia. Ownership of such exotic animals was an impetus for the Dangerous Wild Animals Act passed this year: supporters of the law pointed to the release of dozens of tigers, lions, bears and other animals from a Zanesville, Ohio, facility in 2011 as a reason to have stricter standards in West Virginia.

The law outlines some animals that could be banned, but leaves creation of the final list to the Dangerous Wild Animals Board. The board recently created a subcommittee of officials with the state Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health and Human Resources to draft a list.

That draft, received by the Daily Mail Wednesday, is set to go before the board for initial approval today.

Department of Agriculture spokesman Butch Antolini provided the list, stressing that it’s a work in progress. He emphasized the list still needs to get approval as a rule by the Legislature before becoming law.

He said Jewell Plumley, state veterinarian and the department’s designee on the board, was in the field Wednesday and couldn’t answer questions about the list.

In similar statements, representatives from the health department and DNR refused to provide comments about the composition of the list. DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler referred comment to the Department of Agriculture, saying the DHHR has a “small role” on the committee.

“DNR does not have final say on this list, merely providing advice, specifically to report on those species that could pose a threat to native wildlife and their habitats,” DNR spokesman Hoy Murphy said.

State law says there are three people on the Dangerous Wild Animal Board: the heads of the Department of Agriculture, DHHR and DNR. They can appoint designees, according to state law.

None of the agencies commented on why some animals made the list and others did not.

The subcommittee spent hours Monday creating the draft list. James Crum, a DNR biologist, stressed the committee would have plenty of rationale for every animal it proposed to ban.

Reasons provided for certain animals are vague. For the list of prohibited fish — which includes puffer fish, goby and piranha — the list states “these species present health (toxin) and safety risks to humans or have invasive abilities that threaten native fish populations.”

There’s no specific mention of alpaca on the list. However, the list bans all animals in alpaca’s scientific order except “domestic swine” and “domestic cattle, sheep and goats.”

Wyatt said she thought the animals could be covered as livestock under state agriculture law, but acknowledged that law doesn’t specifically mention them by name either. Farms for the animal, which is similar to a llama, are becoming popular in West Virginia as the fiber from their coats becomes more common in clothing.

“That would be a worry to me,” Wyatt said, adding she thought banning alpaca may have been an oversight.

“I know people across the nation make their living from alpaca, and there are established alpaca farms across West Virginia.”

For the sugar gliders — small animals similar to flying squirrels — and many other mammals, there is a small statement about banning them “for the welfare of the animals.”

Sugar gliders and hedgehogs are banned in other states, Wyatt said. Several of those states, including California, say the animals are prone to abandonment or could carry a disease.

“I guess, to some people it’s like buying a new shirt and new shoes,” Wyatt said, adding sugar gliders are available in at least one mall in the state.

Joe Perdue, who used to help run a pet store in Nitro, disagrees the animals should be banned. He said they can’t survive in colder temperatures, so they wouldn’t pose a risk to the environment.

Dawn Drnek, who lives in Ohio but visits family in West Virginia frequently, said her sugar gliders Turbo and Zoey make fantastic pets.

“I would rather my neighbor have a sugar glider than a tiger that can get loose and eat me,” Drnek said in an email to the Daily Mail.

“At least if a sugar glider gets loose it can (be) eaten by a cat or bird.”

There’s an exemption for zebras on the draft list, too. They’re included in the same scientific family as horses and donkeys, which are specifically allowed on the list.

Wyatt, who owns horses, said she knew several people who used to own zebras in southern West Virginia. While they are similar to their non-striped relatives, Wyatt said there are concerns with the animal.

“The worry I think with zebras I think is they can be very, very aggressive,” Wyatt said.

“No matter how many generations you may breed in captivity, they’re not as docile as your horse or pony in the backyard.”

Zoos, research facilities, circuses and exhibitors that meet certain criterion can obtain permits to keep animals that are on the list, according to the law. The law also allows for people who currently own the animals to continue to keep them if they receive a permit. They’re not allowed to breed those animals or receive new ones, though.

Local law enforcement, county humane officers and the state veterinarian will enforce the law.

A copy of the draft list is available at www.dailymailwv.com.

The board is set to discuss the list in a 1 p.m. meeting today at the Department of Agriculture offices in Guthrie.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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