RICHMOND, Va. - A study group considering limits on ownership of dangerous animals in Virginia recommended Wednesday restricting ownership of elephants, rhinos, Komodo dragons and about a dozen other species.
The recommendations, still subject to final approval, were drawn up over several meetings by the Dangerous Animals Initiative. The group of 30-plus animal protection advocates, owners of primates, exhibitors, animal protection officers and others also approved a list of proposals intended to prevent a repeat of what occurred in Ohio one year ago when a man let loose more than 50 lions, tigers and exotic wildlife before he killed himself.
The animals had to be tracked down and killed out of concern for the public's safety.
Gov. Bob McDonnell created the working group in response to what occurred in Ohio and legislation that was proposed in the Virginia General Assembly in 2012. The group's final report will be submitted to McDonnell and key legislators, said David K. Whitehurst, director of the bureau of wildlife resources for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. He was a non-voting member of the working group.
The various interests at play among the working group were apparent at its meeting Wednesday as the final recommendations went through a round of editing amid largely light-hearted debate.
While satisfied with the outcome, Whitehurst acknowledged the recommendations were delivered through some tortured debates.
"None of these processes are very pretty," he said. "It's like making sausage."
Besides the animals already listed, the group also included: baboons, cape buffaloes, gibbons, including siamangs; hippos, orangutans, chimpanzees, drills, mandrills, gelada baboons and gorillas. The ownership of other exotic animals such as big cats already is restricted in Virginia.
Whitehurst said additions represent the "low-hanging fruit" that working group members could reach consensus on.
"We focused on the big, obviously dangerous animals _ one that escapes and is going to harm someone," he said
The list does not include venomous snakes and some other smaller non-human primates. Snake owners were especially vocal during previous meetings on limiting ownership of boas and other species of snakes.
"It's become quite a lucrative trade and breeding business," Laura Donahue, director of Virginia Humane Society and a member of the working group, said of the snake interests who spoke out against ownership restrictions.
Still, she added, the group made "remarkable progress" considering all the different interests at the table. "There are still some gaps but progress was made."
Part of the working group's task was to cut through the thicket of state, local and federal regulations regarding exotic and possibly dangerous animals.
The fish and wildlife department already has a list of restricted animals, but they typically involve nonnative species that might threaten native species. Brown snakes are a threat to native birds, for instance, among a long list of other invasive species.
The so-called dangerous animals identified by the working group could only be owned by licensed exhibitors, if the recommendations are adopted by the state.
"Basically what the group is saying is that all those animals should be considered dangerous and regulations should be developed," Whitehurst said.
Besides the restricted animals, the working group also recommended other measures to ensure a replay of the Ohio incident isn't repeated in Virginia. They include standards for the enclosure of animals and a "disaster plan" for permitted facilities.
Peggy Rice, who operates the American Primate Haven on Virginia's Eastern Shore, said she was pleased with the committee's work.
"I think that some people came with an agenda to ban animal ownership," she said. "I support responsible ownership. We see in all areas of ownership of animals irresponsible ownership.
"It educated each of us," she said of the process.
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Dangerous Animals Initiative: http://virginiaanimals.net/
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