HOME   Commissioners peeved at owners of exotic pets 'Inherently dangerous' exotic animals shouldn't be kept as pets'

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

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by Dan Hansen - The Spokesman-Review

Spokane- Soon, the only cougars allowed in suburban homes will be Washington State University graduates.

At least two of the three Spokane County commissioners say they want to exile ``inherently dangerous'' exotic animals like cougars and other big cats to areas where livestock is raised.

Under a proposal that could be months in the making, people who own the animals would have a year to get rid of them or move out of the ``urban growth area.'' That boundary includes nearly all of the Spokane Valley and the suburban North Side.

Or, those owners could move their pets to the South Hill, Browne's Addition or other city neighborhoods.

``There are no regulations for exotic animals in the city limits,'' SpokAnimal Care Director Gail Mackie said.

City lions, tigers and bears don't even need licenses like those required for dogs or cats. They can be taken for walks without a leash. The same rules apply to crocodiles, boa constrictors and other reptiles.

That may change after the county adopts its regulations, Mackie said. A committee on animal control issues is waiting to see the county's regulations before making a recommendation to the City Council.

Spokane County in 1996 adopted its first-ever ordinance for regulating and licensing pets that most people expect to see only in the wild or in zoos. Two events involving one pet prompted the law.

In 1995, Charlie the cougar escaped from his pen in a Spokane Valley neighborhood, forcing officials at three nearby schools and a day-care center to lock their students inside. The cat was captured, and no one was hurt.

The following year, Charlie bit a young visitor who stuck his fingers into the cougar's cage. His owners had Charlie euthanized, but since have replaced him with two more cougars.

Commissioners' first efforts will be to tighten licensing restrictions. That matter will be addressed during an April 20 public hearing.

As now written, owners are exempt from complying with any of the county's exotic animal regulations if they obtain a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That USDA license, which is cheaper than a county license, carries more lenient regulations for the care and housing of the animals.

The owners of several animals, including the owners of Charlie's replacements, have used the loophole to save hundreds of dollars and avoid county inspections.

During a meeting Tuesday, Commissioners John Roskelley and Kate McCaslin left little doubt they'll tighten up the existing law. Commissioner Phil Harris didn't commit himself to the change.

``People with common sense don't have those kinds of animals anyway,'' Roskelley said. Keeping large animals in small enclosures amounts to animal cruelty, he said.

A more time-consuming process is required before commissioners can restrict the neighborhoods where the animals can be kept.

Any proposed land-use regulation must go before the county Planning Commission before commissioners can adopt changes.

Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to send a letter to planning commissioners, asking that they make the matter a priority.

But the Planning Commission is thick in the onerous work of rewriting the county's comprehensive land-use plan.

Once the comprehensive plan is completed -- probably in late April -- there will be other chores that have been put off as the Planning Commission gave the comprehensive plan its complete attention.

McCaslin said there's little chance commissioners would elect to ban exotic animals countywide, as the King County Council did in 1994.

``If somebody buys 50 acres in some remote part of the county, I don't think it's right for the county to ban them there,'' she said.

Saying he was only playing devil's advocate, Harris questioned the need to move exotic animals into the country.

``There's more people kicked by horses, there's more people bit by dogs, there's more people bit by people'' than are harmed by big cats, Harris said.

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