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Scrutiny of exotic farms grows

Weather and land prices have made Florida a haven for breeders of exotic animals. But as the industry grows, critics are pushing for more government restraint.

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published September 28, 2003

[Times photos: Stephen Coddington]
A pair of dromedary camels wander past the home of Bill and Jane McConnell on their Hidden Hills Farm south of Floral City in Citrus County.

photo
Miniature horses graze at Hidden Hills Farm. Seventy-five of the horses have been born there. They can generate $800 to $12,000 each.
photo   An endangered Galapagos tortoise eats a yam from Jane McConnell. The McConnells have 12 of the giant creatures.

Bill McConnell grew up in a six-story walk-up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He and his wife started the farm for exotic animals in 1991.   photo

INVERNESS - In a remote corner of Citrus County where roads wind through tunnels of live oaks, there is a 33-acre farm with a pastel pink house and dromedary camels, munchkin cats, Galapagos tortoises and miniature horses with blue eyes.

The animals live separately but for a common purpose: to create more dromedary camels, munchkin cats, Galapagos tortoises and miniature horses with blue eyes. The offspring are then sold to private individuals for cash.

"It's a misfit farm for animals you don't see anymore," jokes Bill McConnell, 55, a headhunter for the plastics industry who with his wife, Jane, started this farm near Floral City in 1991. More seriously, he notes, "This is a breeding operation. We take pride in breeding quality animals."

Literally hundreds of small operations like this exist in Florida, farms where exotic animals are bred and sold for profit to a growing number of private individuals bent on having the oddest animal in the neighborhood or seeking to breed animals themselves.

Florida's tropical climate and cheap land makes it a prime spot for these operations.

A woman in Okeechobee breeds wallabies, wallaroos, mutation Indian ringnecks (birds) and champion-sired French bulldogs. A man in Geneva breeds emus, ostriches, Jack Russell terriers and parrots. Another in Fellsmere sells prairie dogs, fennec foxes, boa constrictors and philander opossums.

Although Florida has laws regulating exotic animal breeders, many animal protection organizations and state and federal officials say animal breeders are out of control, and some are working to control the industry with a federal law. They point to the number of exotic animals who are abandoned by pet owners and wind up in animal orphanages where they must be fed and cared for at tremendous cost.

Lions. Tigers. Bears. Alligators. Crocodiles. Elephants. You name it, animal sanctuaries have rescued them.

"I'm absolutely against breeding," says Sumner Matthes, wildlife rescue coordinator for Sarasota In Defense of Animals and a board member of the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio, Texas. "I get calls every day from people who have animals that have been bred and they don't know what to do with them and they need help."

* * *

Bill McConnell was a city boy who grew up in a six-story walk-up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

One day, when he was 16 years old, he decided to go surfing on Long Island. A young lady named Jane, then 15, came riding down the road on a horse. They've been married for 34 years.

They wanted a farm of their own and chose Floral City because of its proximity to horse trails. They started with just a few miniature horses. Since they moved here, about 75 of them have been born on the farm. The couple have also bred the best with each other to reach the optimum horse: black and white pintos with blue eyes.

The horses can generate anywhere from $800 to $12,000 depending on their size and color.

Then came Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises. The McConnells now own 12 of these giant animals. They will grow to the size of Volkswagens one day, but for now the largest one is about 250 pounds. They got all of them when they were the size of dinner plates or ping pong balls.

"All I wanted was one turtle," said Mrs. McConnell, surveying the fenced area next to their home where the tortoises live, "and he bought all these."

The McConnells had to obtain a license from the federal government to own the Galapagos tortoises, which are endangered and can only be sold in Florida.

"These are our retirement program," Mr. McConnell said. "The oldest is four or five years away from breeding. If we're fortunate enough to get them to breed, they are an enormous profit center."

The tortoises will produce 80 babies a year when they begin breeding, generating income of $1,500 per hatchling. To pay for their expensive food bill, the McConnells have turned to the smaller red-footed tortoises, quicker breeders that produce 50 babies a year that go for $75 to $100 apiece.

The camels, the McConnells most recent endeavor, produce only one baby a year. But it can sell for anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000, depending on its sex and color.

The McConnells have five camels, including a rare white-haired camel named Ernie after Ernest Hemingway. They plan to breed Ernie with several regular dromedary camels to get more of the rare white camels.

They also have munchkin cats, which have short, stubby legs, kind of like dachshunds. And American curl cats, which have ears that arc back from their faces toward the center of their heads. The McConnells say they often give them away.

"The more unusual, the more people collect them and the more they want to have them," said Mr. McConnell.

* * *

Exotic animals are imported from other countries, plucked from the American wild and bred in captivity here.

They are traded in bulk over the Internet and at auctions and sold over fences. Baby monkeys are shipped by planes and Siberian tigers can be found in magazines for free.

Some animals, such as the Galapagos tortoises the McConnells are breeding, can't be sold over state lines unless it is to another licensed breeder. But thousands of other animals can be shipped from state to state, raising concerns that the exotic animal trade is spreading equally exotic diseases.

Monkeypox, a virus from Africa that sickened 72 people in six states earlier this year, is thought to have come over on rodents imported for exotic pets. It then may have jumped to humans from prairie dogs.

"Lions and tigers and bears and monkeys don't make appropriate pets," said Kim Haddad, a veterinarian and manager of the advocacy group, Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition in San Francisco. "It's bad for animals, and there are injuries from a public safety standpoint or the transmission of deadly diseases."

Exotic animal experts estimate that 15,000 primates, such as chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys (the most popular), are kept as pets. Bears and camels are increasingly becoming backyard pets, exotic animal experts say.

Another 10,000 to 20,000 large wild cats, including 5,000 to 7,000 tigers, are in private ownership in the United States. According to National Geographic Explorer, more cats may be living in neighborhoods and roadside zoos in America than are left in the wild in Asia.

Suzanne Murray, owner of East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue Sanctuary in Fairfield, Pa., said she has taken in about 60 unwanted exotic animals since she opened her facility in 1998.

Often people don't realize the care involved with exotic animals until they get them and then they no longer want them, she said. Murray has turned away 51 unwanted lions, tigers and other cats so far this year because she doesn't have the space or money to feed them.

Haddad's group, a coalition of animal welfare groups and sanctuary rescues, is pushing for a law, set to be considered soon by the U.S. House, to ban the interstate commerce of big cats for the pet trade. Since it can be difficult to get laws passed, the group thought it better to start small with the animal of most concern and add animals to the roster if it succeeds.

Florida's laws are considered stricter than most. Owning an exotic animal requires a permit, and there are many restrictions.

It is illegal to own a pet tiger in Florida. Wildlife lecturers, zoos and circus acts can own them for business purposes if they are appropriately trained and have enough space. Mountain lions can be kept as pets but owners must have 1,000 hours experience handling the animals and enough property to hold them.

But Florida has a lot of hidden land, says Haddad, making it a prime spot for illegal operations.

"Florida is notorious; you can go over 100 yards down a road and nobody knows what's going on back there," she said. "Nobody knows you're breeding tigers in the backwoods of Ocala, Florida. ... Florida does have tough laws but enforcement of those laws is a little more difficult."

There are 389 wildlife breeders licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Florida.

"There is definitely an increase in the number of animals being bred and more people are breeding," said Lee Coffman, a veterinarian with the state Department of Agriculture. "In some cases, they're trying to preserve the species, but most I'm talking about have it as a hobby or a minor income."

Lt. John West, an investigator with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, said his organization's 10 inspectors typically investigate only when permits are issued or if there is a complaint.

The commission, he said, is concerned mostly with whether someone has enough property and training to own and breed exotic animals.

Coffman and others say breeders can find loopholes in laws to control the exotic animal trade. They say more needs to be done to oversee the industry but money doesn't exist for the enforcement.

"No one has complete overall authority," he said. "There are three agencies that address (animal breeding) but none of them cover them completely. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is concerned with endangered species. Florida Fish and Wildlife is concerned with whether they're confined appropriately, and training. (U.S. Department of Agriculture) cares about animals that are exhibited. It leaves a lot of animals out there that are not specifically dealt with."

Mr. McConnell said he thinks the regulations are adequate. He has been inspected by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the permit to hold the Galapagos turtles, and by the USDA for the camels. He said he is aware of the anti-breeding sentiment among some animal welfare groups.

"That's not my way of thinking," he said. "You can't compare us to a puppy mill. They should be the targets rather than someone like us who is doing it for the preservation of the species. We've got healthy intentions here. Obviously you can look and see it's not a tremendous profit center."

He said his farm is more of "a lifestyle," one that isn't very profitable but enjoyable. He and his wife have one rule, though: They don't breed animals that want to eat them.

- Leonora LaPeter can be reached at 727 893-8640 or lapeter@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 01:49:44]


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