Wild & Dangerous Regulation

A new regulatory board in West Virginia threatens to outlaw common pets like gerbils, hamsters and salamanders.


When you think of dangerous, wild animals, what comes to mind? Lions? Great white sharks? Rabbits?

It might not pass the laugh test, but a proposed list of “Dangerous Wild Animals” submitted for public comment throughout July in West Virginia could very well become a reality in the state that prides itself on being “Wild and Wonderful.”

And it’s not just cottontails that could soon be off-limits to breeders, retailers and the pet-owning public. Gerbils, salamanders, some hamsters, tetras, turtles, monk parakeets, sugar gliders, constrictors and tree frogs are all included, either explicitly or by implication. Because the proposed Dangerous Wild Animal list includes entire classes and orders of animals, it flags literally tens of thousands of species for regulation, licensing and prohibition.

So how did this come to be, and what does it mean for those of us in the trade?

In the aftermath of the 2011 exotic animal release in Zanesville, Ohio, several states have taken steps to introduce or strengthen existing laws restricting the possession of “dangerous,” “wild” or “exotic” animals. In most cases, these laws include outright prohibitions on certain species, as well as caging requirements, licensing regimes and additional restrictions for others.

In West Virginia, the state legislature passed House Bill 4393 in March. This bill created a Dangerous Wild Animal Board, made up of representatives from the State Department of Agriculture, the State Department of Health and Human Resources, and the State Division of Natural Resources. These three individuals were charged with creating a list of dangerous wild animals, which are defined as “a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and aquatic animal, including a hybrid, that is dangerous to humans, other animals or the environment due to its inherent nature.”

At the time of passage, the bill was celebrated by activists as a means to crack down on “wild animals kept as backyard pets or in roadside zoo exhibits.” Summer Wyatt, West Virginia state director for The Humane Society of the United States said: “The days when any Tom, Dick or Harry can pick up a few tigers, lions and bears and call themselves a zoo are coming to an end in West Virginia.”

But the Dangerous Wild Animal Board didn’t limit itself like that. Instead, it adopted a rather expansive interpretation of which animals pose a danger to humans, other animals or the environment. Its proposed list runs to almost six pages of classes, orders and families including birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and small mammals, in addition to the anticipated primates and big cats. And that is how we find ourselves where we are today, with thousands of responsible pet owners throughout West Virginia in possession of what could soon be known as dangerous wild animals.

If passed as written, this list would obviously impact breeders and hobbyists within the state, but its impact on retailers could be just as devastating. Upon approval, anyone in possession of an animal included on the state’s Dangerous Wild Animal list will need to apply to the board for a permit to continue to keep the animal. These permits will cost $100 per animal, meaning the cost of an aquarium full of tetras could very easily go up by a few thousand dollars.

For many small mammals, a $100 permit will represent a cost several times beyond the purchase price of the animal. With these fees as a barrier to ownership, many potential customers can be expected to rethink their purchases of pets, food, products and accessories, affecting all aspects of a pet store’s business.

If there’s a silver lining to this situation, it’s that the proposed list represents a real opportunity for those of us in the trade to partner with our customers to oppose this. We can all join together to explain that these animals are pets, not threats. In fact, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) launched an educational campaign via social media to inform West Virginia pet owners of exactly that, and to encourage them to weigh in during the public comment period.

It’s highly likely you’ve never had to think about the impact of wild animal legislation on your business before. In the past, most such bills have been limited to smaller segments of the pet trade, like reptiles and certain aquatics. But this proposal is evidence of just how easily and unexpectedly your business could be affected by seemingly unrelated legislation.

When the time comes, will you be ready to weigh in with your legislators? Will you be able to quickly and effectively communicate the issue to your customers, your suppliers and your supporters so you can ask for their help?

PIJAC can help you prepare and take action. Get in touch with us today to discuss what’s happening in your backyard.

Mike Bober is vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. For more information on how to get involved, visit pijac.org/governmentaffairs.

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