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In Florida, about 500 private owners have about 13,500 of the most dangerous animals.
By LEONORA LaPETER ANTON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
Here in Florida, land of more alligator and shark attacks than anywhere else in the world, it should come as no surprise that it's a jungle out there.
From sleepy farm towns near Lake Okeechobee to the palm tree-lined downtowns around Tampa Bay, thousands of wild animals live and die in backyard cages largely hidden from view.
Although 22 states ban private ownership of lions, tigers and other exotic wildlife, Florida remains a haven for menageries. State records show about 4,500 people or businesses hold licenses to own everything from bears to boa constrictors.
Research labs breed thousands of primates for experiments. Circus workers return every winter with lions and bears. And large and small rescue operations started years ago in undeveloped areas now find themselves surrounded by single-family homes.
"There are so many sanctuaries out there and they're not sanctuaries, they're peoples' private collections," says Vernon Yates, who keeps about 200 animals on 3 acres in Seminole.
Wildlife owners must submit annual counts of their animals, but state wildlife officials acknowledge they have no idea exactly how many exotic animals inhabit the state.
"In an ideal world, it would be better to have inventories on what is possessed on a daily basis, but that's not realistic," said Capt. Linda Harrison of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency that monitors captive wildlife. "Especially with the frequency and amount of change. What's important is to know where all these facilities are located."
A St. Petersburg Times review of files for owners of Class 1 and Class 2 animals -- the 66 animals that "pose the most threat to human safety" in the words of Harrison -- was fraught with difficulty. Some files were missing; others were lacking the latest inventories; injury and escape data were not computerized.
As for the missing files and inventories, Harrison had no answer. "Some files we weren't able to locate," she said. "I can't answer why they weren't there."
Based on the available inventories, the Times found that about 13,500 Class 1 and Class 2 animals are concentrated in the hands of 500 private owners. (This does not include animals in accredited zoos, aquariums, theme parks and the thousands of less-regulated Class 3 animals.)
The most popular of the more dangerous animals: crocodiles (560), tigers (456) and cougars (401).
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In 1967, a tourist driving into Florida couldn't go but a few miles without running into a roadside animal attraction: a couple of crocodiles in a pen, a pair of boxing chimps, a Bengal tiger in a cage by a souvenir stand.
Some were so decrepit that even the tourists complained. State lawmakers responded by requiring inspections. Then in 1974, after several gruesome animal attacks, the state banned owning certain wild animals as pets. Today, the most dangerous wildlife can only be owned for commercial use.
The largest quantities of exotic animals in Florida -- a combined 8,042 macaques and 1,321 baboons -- are being bred for research at places like Primate Products of Immokalee and Miami, Worldwide Primates Inc. of Miami and the Mannheimer Foundation in Homestead.
But many more are owned by everyday people.
There's the Clearwater woman who has sold encounters with her chimpanzee on Craigslist and a retired 80-year-old St. Petersburg preacher with pet emus and an ostrich in his back yard.
And then there's Richard Greenberg, who keeps three orangutans, three tigers, two chimps and a leopard in multistory cages in his back yard in St. Petersburg behind an electronic gate. Two of his orangutans, Bernie and Maggie, are the stars of a TV ad for his Clearwater auto parts store.
Still, experts say it is inevitable that one day many animals will disappear from private hands as it gets harder and more costly to keep them. Recent efforts for stricter laws have included requiring exotic animal owners to get insurance for potential injuries. Wildlife owners, however, defeated an attempt to make them notify their neighbors of their existence.
Many have watched some of those neighbors creep closer.
"The (animal) activists like to point out that I live in a densely populated area of Pinellas County, but this area was very rural 26 years ago," says Gini Valbuena, who owns two chimpanzees at her home in Clearwater. "I didn't move into this congestion, it moved into me."
Other exotic animal owners believe animal activists are trying to scare the public with exaggerated statistics and misdirected perceptions. No one in Florida has died from a tiger mauling since 2001, they say, and most of those injured are trainers or owners who choose to live with the risk.
Some say they simply want to live with their animals -- free from prying eyes and more government intrusion -- but fear a state that has long welcomed wildlife owners may be turning its back on them.
"I thought I would not see it in my lifetime," said Yates, a wildlife trapper, "but I think it's coming -- any form of private ownership will be gone."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and editorial assistant Emily Rieman contributed to this story.
[Last modified November 11, 2007, 01:36:14]