Growls greet law

Owners of exotic animals says they were ambushed by the requirement for insurance.

Published July 1, 2007

WIMAUMA - It takes a lot of chicken to keep three lions, four tigers, three bears and a dozen leopards happy. And all that chicken isn't cheap. So when Robin Greenwood of Elmira's Wildlife Sanctuary learned that new legislation would require her to put up $10, 000 or buy $2-million of insurance in order to keep her beasts, she was upset. "Ten thousand dollars is a very large sum for a sanctuary struggling just to keep the animals fed, " Greenwood said.

The bill, which became law on Friday, came as a surprise to exotic-animal exhibitors - many of whom say it will impose a financial hardship. Last week, rumors were swirling about the legislation's origin.

Could an animal-rights group such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have lobbied for it?

"Animal-rights activists believe working animals is a sin, " said Larry AllenDean, a tiger trainer based in Orlando. "It's coming from one of these highly organized outfits."

A PETA spokeswoman said that while the organization supports the new law, the group didn't lobby for it.

It's hard to find anyone who will take responsibility for the new law.

Senate Bill 2766 was sponsored by Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge.

But Posey said his bill was meant to affect only reptile owners, not exotic-mammal exhibitors or trainers. The amendment concerning mammals was added at the last minute by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, Posey said.

Capt. John West of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also said the amendment came from Alexander.

"I was surprised because he never talked to me about it, just put it on my bill, " Posey said.

Alexander didn't return calls seeking comment. An aide, Rachel Barnes, said Alexander supported the amendment but didn't propose it.

Rather, Sen. Michael S. Bennett, R-Bradenton did, at Alexander's request, she said. Bennett's name is listed with the amendment on the Senate's Web site.

"I don't remember why we did that, " Bennett said. "Somebody asked me to put that on, but I don't know why."

Asked if PETA could have lobbied for the amendment, Bennett scoffed.

"If it had been PETA, I would never have offered it, " he said. "I shoot animals and eat them, okay?"

Regardless of the legislation's origin, animal exhibitors will now have to live with it.

At least one exhibitor said she welcomes the new law.

"We're very excited about this new provision, " said Carole Baskin of Tampa's Big Cat Rescue.

"We think it's a long time coming." The money will force "roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries" to take more responsibility for their charges, she said.

The law is intended to provide some liability coverage in case an animal endangers others or causes property damage.

But others are angry.

"I can't afford it, " said Gloria Johnson, proprietor of Cougar Ridge Education Center in Havana. "I don't happen to have $10, 000 laying around."

The wildlife commission is "working on what we can accept" in lieu of $10, 000 cash, West said. He's considering everything from bonds to certificates of deposit and letters of credit.

"It will be different for everybody depending on [their] financial situation, " he said.

The commission also have to determine what kind of violation will mean forfeiting $10, 000.

Meanwhile, he said he has been inundated with calls from concerned animal exhibitors.

"The majority are not happy, " he said.

"What can I tell them? This is the law."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.