Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Big Cats as Pets (but not sheep)

Over the last week I have been thinking a lot about animals in zoos. Last week I wrote an opinion piece for The Conversation in which I questioned how modern Melbourne Zoo really is. The Zoo turns 150 this year, yet it persists in the Victorian era practice of exhibiting elephants in very small enclosures within urban centres. 

Meanwhile, yesterday, I wrote about the case of a man living in the outer-suburbs of Melbourne who has been fined for having a pet sheep and is now required to relinquish Baa, the family pet. 

I was therefore very interested this morning to read about new laws that are anticipated as a result of the Ohio case in which the owner of a private zoo released all his animals before killing himself. 

Law makers in the state of Ohio are now working on new laws to make it more difficult to own exotic animals. Of course the process is tricky and the demands of zoos and animal rights activists are vastly different. 

Of particular interest to me is the unclear line between wild animal, pet, and exhibit. As we have seen in the case of Baa the sheep, Dandenong City Council does not consider a sheep to be a pet. Meanwhile, in Ohio, and other parts of the US, big cats appear to be quite common pets. 

Sue Manning reports that by some estimates there are more big cats living in captivity in American backyards than in the wild. While that might be good from a conservation perspective, the individual animals may be paying a high price.

And that brings us back to zoos. As part of their lobbying efforts around the new laws, Lynn Culver, executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation has argued that stricter big cat controls might mean an end to big cats on display: "Independent zoos will be allowed to keep their existing animals but when the cats die, there will be zoos without big cats and that's tragic," Culver said. "Big cats are charismatic species, key to the success of any zoo or wildlife exhibit." The zoo lobby does not want tougher laws. 

Meanwhile, animal groups point out that it can be easier to buy a big cat than to adopt a kitten from a shelter. Buying a big cat as a pet is currently under or unregulated. Adopting a kitten is not. 

So what constitutes a pet and how should we decide which animals should be allowed to live where?    

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