Exotic Animal Laws Create More Safety for Public

By: Suzanne Wilson Email
By: Suzanne Wilson Email

November 14, 2012

Bubba the lion is only one of Dr. Jim Lavender's giant cats. During the football season, he cheers on the Louisa Lions football team from the sidelines.

Bubba is one of six large cats on Lavender's property in Goochland County. Along with a kangaroo, a camel, and some more common critters, he says giving animals a home comes from his passion of the animal entertainment industry.

"I've been around animals my whole life," said Lavender, owner of Dr. Lavender's Animals, Inc. and pastor of Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond. "When the phone rang and it was the largest circus in North America asking me if I would become their ring master, which was my life dream, I had to make a choice and I said no."

He now uses exotic animals as a ministry outreach. He teaches kids simple stories through the animals. But is it safe to be sharing space at home or on the sidelines with wild pets?

"I kind of think about things generally, as in is a person very safe, are they knowledgeable about what they are doing, and are they pretty protected, are they careful?" said Christina Strausburg, an audience member at Dr. Lavender's Animals, Inc. presents "Thank God for Kids."

"We check three times every single padlock," Lavender said. "We never, ever move a predator unless the two cages come together with vertical sliding doors. So there is no possibility of escape, and that is chained together and padlocked and then it's check three times with more than one person."

Here in Virginia, there are laws regulating the ownership of exotic animals. Now, Gov. Bob McDonnell has called a committee to possibly put some more teeth into the state's laws.

The new push comes after last year's massacre in Zanesville, Ohio. Last October, an exotic animal owner released dozens of lions, tigers and bears before killing himself. Police had to hunt down and kill nearly 50 of the animals. That incident forced most states to reevaluate their exotic animals laws.

"The entire zoological, entertainment and edutainment world is focused upon this issue because of the incident in Ohio," Lavender said. "It's a unique situation, the one in Ohio. At that time, there were absolutely no laws of any kind in Ohio that had to do with dangerous animals."

All exotic animals are regulated by state and federal guidelines. If an instance comes about in Central Virginia, local animal control officers would be ready to respond.

"We could certainly respond to any incident and access what was going on and see what kind of contacts we would need to make," said Albemarle County animal control officer Sandra Urry. "Certainly, if there was a threat to the public, we would have to deal with that at the time."

"I do not believe we will have to worry about a random animal that we don't even know is there being in someone's home and not managed professionally. And that is the big worry I think we should have. Whether it's a reptile, or a bird, or a mammal." Lavender said.

Lavender says that the governor's committee will bring together ideas that will ultimately protect you and your family from any incidents with exotic animals.

The discussion group hopes to wrap up their meetings here in the next couple of weeks. They will then pass the legislation along to the General Assembly to discuss in their upcoming session starting January 2013.

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