Legislation takes aim at large carnivores

Brennan Stebbins

Well, 40 lions and tigers is too many, and Rep. Mike Sutherland (R-Warrenton) wants to change how Missouri deals with the large carnivores.

Sutherland has sponsored legislation that would create the Large Carnivore Act to regulate the animals in the state, including rules for ownership, possession, breeding and transportation.

“In my district there was a situation where somebody kept about 40 lions and tigers, and in pretty unsafe conditions,” Sutherland said. “People in the area were unhappy about it and wanted to do something about it, so that really got me involved in the issue and I’ve been working on it.

“It’s a public safety issue for me, in that people should not have to feel unsafe if there are dangerous animals around them. In Missouri we have virtually no law preventing people from having these really dangerous animals so this doesn’t ban them or outlaw them but it certainly accounts for them and regulates how they are kept, so people can feel safe who are around them and then also make sure if people have them they are responsible in their ownership.”

An incident at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal sanctuary in Warrenton four years ago put a spotlight on the issue of dealing with large carnivores. A U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation led to charges of violating the Animal Welfare Act after 65 animals were discovered in poor living conditions, bad health, and insufficient fencing for the animals. Besides lions, tigers and bears, the facility also housed cougars and wolves. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the facility a “dilapidated backyard animal menagerie … which masquerades as a sanctuary while breeding lions and tigers and confining animals to small, barren cages.”

In a release, PETA Director Debbie Leahy took descriptions of the facility a step further.

“Wesa-A-Geh-Ya bills itself as a sanctuary, when it’s nothing but a hellhole of animal misery,” Leahy said. “The only thing that can stop perpetual suffering at Wesa is to rescue these animals and padlock the place for good.”

The facility was never padlocked, and last August a tiger jumped an 8-foot fence and attacked a volunteer cleaning the tiger’s enclosure. The victim said the park’s owners tried to conceal the incident by cleaning the area and reporting the victim had been attacked by a pit bull. A day later, a 16-year-old volunteer was attacked by a tiger at Predator World in Branson while attempting to photograph the animal from inside its enclosure.

“We have to account for them all because we don’t even know how many are in our state,” Sutherland said. “There is a law to do that but it’s not enforced. This bill would microchip all the animals so we could track their movements. All the states around us have pretty tough laws and Kansas just passed a law, so Missouri is kind of the hole in the middle. “

The bill would require a registration fee, and liability insurance of at least $250,000 to cover any incidents involving the animals. Sutherland said he has a lot of support in the General Assembly, as well as support from the St. Louis Zoo and animal welfare organizations.

J.B. Anderson, of the Feline Conservation Federation, testified in opposition to the bill during a Tuesday hearing, saying that six federal acts already cover large carnivores. Anderson added that Sutherland’s bill doesn’t distinguish between smaller and larger carnivores and is unenforceable, instead punishing good owners while trying to regulate the bad ones.