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Permitted pets and loose lions

Exotic animal ownership regulations vary throughout Wisconsin, United States

A+lion+yawns+inside+its+enclosure+at+Valley+of+the+Kings+animal+sanctuary+in+Sharon%2C+Wisconsin.+
A lion yawns inside its enclosure at Valley of the Kings animal sanctuary in Sharon, Wisconsin.

A lion yawns inside its enclosure at Valley of the Kings animal sanctuary in Sharon, Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of Susan E. Reinholz

Photo courtesy of Susan E. Reinholz

A lion yawns inside its enclosure at Valley of the Kings animal sanctuary in Sharon, Wisconsin.

Alena Purpero and Brad Allen

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Permitted pets and loose lions

Exotic animal ownership regulations vary across Wisconsin

If you could own any animal in the world, what would it be?

You’ve probably heard this question before. Many times, probably.

Alena Purpero / Lifestyle Editor

Brad Allen / Biz & Tech Editor

Some people would say dogs all the way. Other may claim cats are the best. A select few would tell you the other two are crazy, and that owning a kangaroo is the way to go. The interesting part—all three are legal to own in five states, including Wisconsin.

But before you take that leap and buy the pet kangaroo you’ve always wanted, it’s important to do your homework first. Even if it is legal in your municipality, it may be a lifelong commitment.

The facts and regulations

There is no federal law regulating private ownership of most types of exotic animals, as long as the animal is not protected by the Endangered Species Act, said Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture: Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, based in Maryland.

Federal laws only apply to breeders and exhibitors but not private owners.

Wisconsin is one of only five states that has loose laws on exotic animals ownership. Citizens can privately own exotic animals which range widely from tigers, bears, wolves, lions, primates, kangaroos, Kinkajous, capybaras, parrots to large snakes.

But while Wisconsin allows private ownership statewide, there are strict regulations on animal ownership within most cities or municipalities.

Both the Janesville and Whitewater City Government ordinances list that private ownership of any potentially wild or dangerous animals within city limits is strictly prohibited.

It is legal to to own a dog, house cat, pot-bellied pig or non-dangerous small animals such as guinea pigs, hedgehogs, chinchillas, iguanas and geckos. Most of these animals sold at local pet stores and are generally accepted to be treated by certified specialists at Whitewater Veterinary Hospital.

Although tigers, bears, lions, wallabies, kinkajous, primates, kangaroos, penguins and capybaras are legal statewide, they are not legal to own within city limits. It is unclear if it is legal to own a Macaw or parrot are allowed. This means you can only own potentially dangerous animals if you live in the countryside.

Mike Katzenberg, an employee of the Department of Natural Resources in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, said that any wild animal that is native to Wisconsin is illegal to own.

Surprisingly soft companions

UW-Whitewater senior Lauren Ziemer owns two exotic pets: a female hedgehog named Autumn, and a male chinchilla named Vesa. Ziemer bought both animals from owners who were no longer able to properly care for them. Ziemer said she would like to own another chinchilla that could bond with Vesa.

Vesa and Autumn do not get along, and Ziemer said it is possible that one could transmit diseases to the other in they have prolonged exposure to one another.

Ziemer said the the biggest challenge in owning an exotic animal is understanding the pet itself. Maintaining proper care of these animals requires a lot of time and patience.

Photo by Brad Allen
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater senior Lauren Ziemer holds her pet hedgehog, Autumn. Ziemer purchased Autumn from a previous owner who was no longer able to care for the 2-year-old hedgehog.

“Chinchillas are the soft animal, and like any animal, it takes time and patience to gain their trust,” Ziemer said.

Chinchillas cannot eat most foods that humans do, but instead can eat flowers, apples, cookies or bumblebee pollen.

Hedgehogs eat cat food, because hedgehog food incidentally can cause choking hazards. Hedgehogs can eat eggs, cottage cheese, beef and seafood. Each of these foods must be cooker, however. Some foods that hedgehogs should never eat is citrus fruits, nuts, seeds or unseasoned sweet potatoes. Insects, such as crickets, are meant to be a limited treat only.

The ideal temperature range for a hedgehog is of between 72 and 80 degrees. They have poor eyesight, and instead use their sense of smell to interact with their environment. One common habit is anointing, in which a hedgehog licks new objects and then spits out foam onto its quills.

Photo by Brad Allen
Autumn, a pet hedgehog, lifts her front paws and head as she uncurls from a ball position.

“Never let a chinchilla outside,” Ziemer said. “It’s too dangerous.”

The handling process of hedgehogs should begin at two weeks, Ziemer said, because if they are not handled properly at that time, it could drastically affect handling attempts later on.

“People ask if the spikes hurt, or ‘does she bite?’ Or ‘did you name it Sonic?’” Ziemer said. “They have some defensive behaviors, like curling into a ball. They’ll hiss when they’re angry and raise their quills when agitated. Chirping means contentment. Generally, you want to pet a hedgehog in the direction that the quills lay. People are so surprised because it’s not the same texture you would think.”

The Royal Purple tested this theory, and found that hedgehogs’ quills are indeed incredibly soft.

Treating exotic animals

Ziemer said that Dr. Lauren Schneider and the other doctors at Whitewater Veterinary Hospital are very open to hearing what pet owners have to say.

“It’s more stressful if something goes wrong, and then you have to find an emergency vet,” Ziemer said. “Hedgehogs hide their sickness until it’s nearly too late.

Schneider, an animal veterinary specialist at Whitewater Veterinary Hospital, said each species has different caretaking specifics based on natural history in the wild.

“A lot of exotic animals are not truly domesticated,” Schneider said. “There’s a different level of stress in animals that have had their root essentially unchanged from their wild counterparts.”

Handling is a big thing, and knowing what’s normal in their behavior and sleep schedule can help determine what may be wrong.

Schneider said replicating the natural habitat of various species is essential to creating a comfortable environment for exotic species.

Researching as much as possible is most important, because one may need to invest in changes to a specific room or finding items for a specific enclosure. There really needs to be an investment of supplies before someone ever owns an exotic pet.”

— Lauren Schneider, Doctor and animal care specialist at Whitewater Veterinary Hospital

“Researching as much as possible is most important, because one may need to invest in changes to a specific room or finding items for a specific enclosure,” Schneider said. “There really needs to be an investment of supplies before one ever owns an exotic pet.”

Whitewater Veterinary Hospital uses hide boxes, which are easy to add moss onto the sides of, in order to create a more comfortable environment for reptiles that owners bring in to be treated.

“There can be really variable lifespans among exotic animals,” Schneider said. “Most rodents may live a year two, whereas tortoises and macaws will outlive their owners. It’s important not be make a rash, gut decision.”

Whitewater Veterinary Hospital has taken in injured wildlife and transferred them to wildlife rehabilitators within the 48 hours that Wisconsin’s state law require.

“We are legally able to provide basic care for a short period of time, but we are not licensed as wildlife rehabilitators or caretakers. We could use a short pain medication, or something like that.”

Whitewater Veterinary Hospital does not treat primates or large, naturally predatory animals, such as tigers or wolves. Schneider said those all calls would be referred to the UW-Madison Veterinary School of Medicine’s Special Species Department.

A multitude of wild animal rehabilitation facilities are located throughout Wisconsin. One of these facilities which offers a safe haven for mistreated or abandoned cats, big or small, is Valley of the Kings, located in Sharon, Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of Susan E. Reinholz
A North American black bear looks over to the camera while eating a specially prepared meal at Valley of the Kings animal sanctuary.

Susan E. Reinholz, a Valley of the Kings volunteer, said it is frustrating for her to see so many animals dropped off at the rehabilitation site by incapable owners.

Reinholz said a private owner from Chicago brought in a savannah cat that she had bought from a breeder online five years prior.

“When I get there [to Valley of the Kings], I’m so grounded,” Reinholz said. “I could be there working for ten hours and not even realize it, because it’s something I’m enjoying, even in bad weather.”

Potential dangers of exotic pet ownership

Caring for wild or very large animals can be a potentially dangerous undertaking for medical professionals.

Doctor Grayson Doss, Zoological Medicine and Surgery (Medical) Resident at UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said his program is usually pretty clear with clients, patients and owners of the animals that we want everyone to remain safe.

“We have some special equipment, such as calming agents or sedatives, that allow us to interact with the animals, or to assess the animals from a safe distance, while minimizing human contact with an animal that could potentially cause great bodily harm,” Doss said. “This limits the patient’s stress and protects those around.”

But some of these animals are extremely intelligent, and that can make it more of a challenge working with those species, Doss said. Some animals more agile than most people would expect them to be.

“A lot of these animals are very diverse, and trying to mimic certain environmental aspects can be very challenging,” Doss said. “Caring for a lot of these species can be very tricky. A lot of times, owners have problems finding proper resources.”

We have some special equipment, such as calming agents or sedatives, that allow us to interact with the animals, or to assess the animals from a safe distance, while minimizing human contact with an animal that could potentially cause great bodily harm. We’ve definitely treated some strange creatures since I’ve been here.”

— Grayson Doss, Zoological medicine and surgical resident at UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

With certain species, even conducting any sort of medical treatment can lead to serious medical complications or legal issues, depending on how endangered the animal is. Elephants and rhinoceroses would be listed near or at the top of such a list. Neither is legal to privately own anywhere in the United States and performing medical procedures on these animals without proper credentials would be listed as a federal offense.

“We’ve definitely treated some strange creatures since I’ve been here,” Doss said.

Doctor Kurt Sladky, Clinical Associate Professor of Zoological Medicine/Special Species Health for UW-Madison’s Veterinary School of Medicine, said it is important for people to be cautious when choosing an exotic pet, but he does not discourage responsible pet ownership.

Sladky said all exotic pet owners should take their animals to a qualified veterinarian for health check-ups and a discussion of how best to care for your pet.

“Qualified veterinarians have typically completed advance training in Zoological Medicine, which encompasses training in all exotic pets, zoo and aquaria animals, and wildlife,” Sladky said.

The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine has two board-certified specialists in Zoological Medicine.

“With respect to primate species for the pet trade, I’m not sure that breeding them is ever a good idea,” Sladky said. “Many breeders of primate species take them away from their mother very early in life in order to form an attachment with their human caregiver. Removing baby primates from their mother too early causes significant psychological distress and contributes to abnormal behavior.”

When considering pet primates, Sladky says,  “people should understand that these animals won’t stay cute and young forever. They’re going to grow up and behave as wild animals. There is significant risk from biting injuries, as well as transmission of diseases.”

With respect to primate species for the pet trade, I’m not sure that breeding them is ever a good idea. Removing baby primates from their mother too early causes significant psychological distress and contributes to abnormal behavior. People should understand that these animals won’t stay cute and young forever. They’re going to grow up and behave as wild animals.”

— Doctor Kurt Sladky, Clinical Associate Professor at UW-MadisonSchool of Veterinary Medicine

Removing wild animals from their natural habitat for the pet trade could introduce new exotic diseases, Sladky said.

For example, in 2006, an outbreak of Monkeypox virus, a zoonotic disease from Africa, was found in people in Wisconsin after prairie dogs were sold as pets to families. Several children became sick with a skin disease as a result of Monkeypox. The prairie dogs that were afflicted with Monkeypox had contracted the virus during a stay in an exotic pet warehouse in Chicago from Giant Gambian Pouched Rats, which were imported for pet trade.

Approximately 200 prairie dogs were housed inside the facility when the disease was transmitted. A total of 93 infected prairie dogs were traced from the facility to six states.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as of July 8, 2003, a total of 71 cases of Monkeypox among humans were reported to the CDC, with 39 from Wisconsin, 16 from Indiana, 12 from Illinois, two from Missouri, one from Kansas  and one from Ohio.

“We worry a lot about zoonotic diseases,” Sladky said.

“People who are considering purchasing an exotic pet should do a lot of reading before they make the purchase—not on the Internet, that’s a terrible place, which is full of misinformation,” Sladky said. “Most successful exotic pet owners spend a lot of time doing the reading and research.”

Destruction of habitats

Sladky said that if there is some percentage of exotic pets being removed from the wild, for example Macaw species, there is a potential to have devastating effects on the environment. Once species population numbers are depleted within an ecosystem, there is potential for loss of one species to have an impact on other species within the same ecosystem, potentially altering the ecosystem in such a way that it cannot rejuvenate itself.

Tina Shaw, public affairs specialist for Midwest Region Fish & Wildlife Services, said “exotic pets sold through licensed breeders are typically domesticated.” She added, “But if they aren’t domesticated, then the imports of those animals directly contributes to habitat destruction, and it’s a very real problem.”

A giant tortoise stops crawling forward to eat a few blades of grass inside Valley of the Kings animal sanctuary.

Most commonly maintained exotic pets, such as bearded dragons, guinea pigs, or parrot species are bred in captivity, along with most of the pet primate species are bred in captivity. Most zoos no longer import primates from the wild. Birds, however, are sometimes imported from the wild.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services steps in to stop illegal activity and mitigate unlawful animal trades as much as possible, Shaw said. “Illegal animal trades doesn’t only affect the animals in question; it also can affect other species of wildlife, either directly or indirectly.”

Extensive amount of treaty work is being done between the United States, Canada and Mexico to protect wildlife, particularly Monarch Butterflies, from habitat destruction, Shaw said.

Wild members of the family

Published author, retired Ohio police officer, founder of Outreach for Animals Tim Harrison was a first responder to the Zanesville, Ohio exotic animal massacre in 2011.

This incident occurred after a man released 56 exotic animals, including tigers, bears, monkeys and several snakes. Police responded to the scene and were forced to kill each of the animals for the sake of the town’s safety. The owner committed suicide immediately after.

“You have to have a license for your dog, but you don’t have to have anything for a Lion,” Harrison said, citing a documentary in which he was a contributor.

The regulations on domestic animals is unfortunately a lot tighter than with exotic animals despite the actuality of the situation.

Before they decide to own a dangerous, wild or exotic animal, I want them to sit down for a second and ask if they would want to be placed in a cage for the rest of their life. Would you want to be surgically altered or have your claws and canines removed? People want wild animals to be a part of the family. It’s not morally right”

— Tim Harrison, Founder of Outreach for Animals and retired police officer who responded to the Zanesville, Ohio animal massacre in 2011

Harrison said people should seek ownership of sheltered animals which are in danger of being put down instead of rare animals.

“You want a loving animal? Go get a cat before it gets put to sleep,” Harrison said. “There are dogs waiting for homes right now, why do you have to have a hedgehog?”

Harrison said he believes it is unethical to keep non-domesticated animals as pets.

“Before they decide to own a dangerous, wild or exotic animal, I want them to sit down for a second and ask if they would want to be placed in a cage for the rest of their life,” Harrison said. “Would you want to be surgically altered or have your claws and canines removed? People want wild animals to be a part of the family. It’s not morally right.”

But some exotic animal breeders or owners may disagree with Harrison’s point of view.

Monkeys at a barbecue

“A lot of exotic animals can sometimes have a bad reputation because the owner doesn’t have the knowledge to do it right,” said owner of Animal Ambassadors, Capuchin monkey breeder based in Florida, who identified himself only as Rich. “If you do it right then these animals are gentle and a Capuchin would be just how it would with a group of thirty Capuchin in the jungle with you and your buddy’s at a barbecue.”

If you do it right then these animals are gentle and a Capuchin would be just how it would with a group of thirty Capuchin in the jungle with you and your buddy’s at a barbeque.”

Keeping them in the wild

Kate Dylewsky, Born Free USA program assistant, works to ensure that wild animals live as natural as possible. The more common exotic pets are the ones whose sizes are most similar to a typical house pet, such as sugar gliders and Capuchin monkeys.

Dylewsky said she believes it is unnatural to force certain animals to adapt to completely new environments solely for the sake of private ownership.

“You wouldn’t put a chihuahua in the woods, and you wouldn’t put a wolf in your living room,” Dylewsky said.

A sanctuary for animals

Jay Christie owns a petting zoo and animal conservation park in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Christie said he had been wanting to open Safari Lake Geneva for several decades to create a sanctuary for rare animals or animals that have previously suffered from poor domestic conditions.

“I can give animals much more room to roam around here than at a zoo,” Christie said. “It helps inspire people’s appreciation of wildlife and reassess their view of the environment.”

It’s quite rewarding to own an exhibit. All the people who visit seem to share an interest in and affection for the animals.”

— Jay Christie, owner of Safari Lake Geneva

Christie said he specializes in herbivores and “grazing animals,” particularly zebras, bison, horses, sheep, goats, ducks, pot-bellied pigs and alpacas. Christie also owns an armadillo and some non-carnivorous snakes.

“It’s quite rewarding to own an exhibit,” Christie said. “All the people who visit seem to share an interest in and affection for the animals.”

Madisonian marsupials

Tessa Fruend, owner of Twilight Gliders in Madison, breeds and sells sugar gliders to private owners.

Sugar gliders are illegal to own within city limits in Janesville. However, it is legal to own the small marsupials within the city limits of Wisconsin’s capitol city, Madison.

Fruend said hammocks and other accessories for sugar gliders must be properly sewn, and cannot be found in most pet stores. The accessories must be made of fleece, cotton or flannel.

Sugar gliders must be housed in cages with bars that are no more than a half inch apart, because they can squeeze through the bars and escape otherwise.

House cats should never be exposed to sugar gliders, Fruend said.

“Cat’s saliva is poison to sugar gliders, it gets into their bloodstream and it can cause an extremely nasty infection and can kill them even if properly treated.”

Finding reputable breeders

Zak Keeler, owner of Even Keel Exotics in Michigan said he sells exotic pets to zoos, schools, veterinarians and private owners. Keeler is a licensed breeder through the USDA. He has bought each of his animals from zoos and other reputable breeders.

Keeler said USDA inspectors have shut down many faulty breeding programs in his state, and added that there are “lots of scams out there.”

Keeler suggests that individuals considering owning an exotic pet complete extensive research on the legality of owning the animal first, and also do research on the breeders they are looking to buy from. “You can’t be too careful,” Keeler said.

The not-so-hairy, and non-fire-breathing trio

Devin Crane is an exotic pet owner from Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He owns three bearded dragons, two of which he rescued from incapable owners, and the third he purchased from a breeder in Wisconsin.

“Each bearded dragon is different in personality,” Crane said. “All three of my dragons are different. Some are more skittish than others. Bearded dragons are solitary animals, and they don’t do well in pairs or trios.”

The way to their hearts is through their stomachs.”

— Devin Crane, owner of three beeard dragons in Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Crane said the bigger their housing size is, the better. Enclosure temperature for bearded dragons for adults should be between 95 and 105 degrees and for babies it should be between 105 and 115 degrees.

Crane said bearded dragons should be fed mostly bugs for the first year of their life, with a small portion of their diet consisting of salad leaves, fruits or vegetables. After these creatures are older than a year, the diet should be the exact opposite, with a majority of fruits and a small portion of bugs.

Crane allows his bearded dragons outside of their enclosures to roam about the house every day. He said hand-feeding is important for building trust with the reptiles.

“The way to their hearts is through their stomachs,” Crane said.

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Permitted pets and loose lions