B.C. must enforce exotic animal regulations or risk disaster

Peter Fricker

The Georgia Straight Online

Published: January 25, 2011

The provincial government’s regulation of dangerous exotic animals is being put to the test by dubious, self-styled animal rescuers, some gullible media, and the public’s short memory.

In 2007, 32-year-old Tania Dumstrey-Soos was killed by a caged tiger kept by her partner, Kim Carlton, at his property near 100 Mile House. Six months earlier, the Vancouver Humane Society had written to the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, warning that Carlton’s makeshift enclosures were “a disaster waiting to happen” but, sadly, no action was taken.

Carlton’s business, Siberian Magic, was an animal rental agency, providing tigers and lions for commercial film work and using them to “educate” the public about conservation at appearances in malls and community centres. (For a fee, children could have their picture taken standing beside a tiger.) The tragic incident finally triggered provincial government action on the unregulated keeping of exotic animals in B.C.

The result was the introduction of the Controlled Alien Species Regulation in 2009, which, through a new permit system, would restrict the keeping of certain dangerous exotic animals.

Animal welfare advocates hoped the regulations would curtail the activities of amateurish exotic animal businesses, with their uninspected, homemade enclosures, cages, and tanks, and their spurious claims of education and conservation work. Advocates were encouraged when, ironically, Carlton became the first person to be convicted under the new regulations after he acquired two lion cubs last year.

But in recent months, the government’s regulations have been challenged by Mike Hopcraft, an Abbotsford reptile enthusiast who recently “rescued” a pet alligator—from a Surrey reptile enthusiast. The so-called rescue had local media falling over themselves to record the exciting and dangerous transfer of the animal from one suburban tub of water to another. Hopcraft was characterized as an exotic animal specialist, bravely employing his expertise in a delicate and dangerous operation.

When it emerged that Hopcraft was being investigated by provincial conservation officers for possessing the alligator without a permit, some media continued to champion him. Reports described him being subjected to “bureaucratic hassles” and being dogged by government “paper tigers”. (The environment ministry is now considering whether to grant him a permit.)

But did anyone ask him about his qualifications? Is he a wildlife biologist? Is he professionally trained in conservation? The truth is that Hopcraft, just like Carlton, is an amateur collector of exotic animals who makes his living by exhibiting them. And what about the standards of his operation? His reptile “facility” is a warehouse and is not accredited by any zoological body. And what resources does he have?

According to his website, Hopcraft is currently living in his van and is seeking cash donations to keep his outfit afloat. Is this the kind of operation we should entrust with the care of complex exotic species?

Even long-established zoos with considerable resources and expertise struggle to provide appropriate habitats for exotic wildlife. The once respected Calgary Zoo, for example, has faced a firestorm of criticism after a string of animal deaths caused by human error over the last two years. How can an under-resourced individual be expected to provide a safe and humane environment for dangerous animals? We have been here before—and it can result in disaster. Has the lesson from the death of Dumstrey-Soos really been forgotten so soon?

Animal welfare, in addition to public safety, is easily compromised when self-styled animal “rescuers” convince the media and public that they know what they’re doing. Late last year, yet another exotic animal business, Cinemazoo, attempted to move its animal collection from Whalley to South Surrey. A number of animals died and Cinemazoo’s proprietor, Gary Oliver, is now under investigation by the B.C. SPCA for animal cruelty. Yet Oliver has managed to attract publicity, public sympathy, and donations to stay in business.

Businesses and individuals who make money from keeping and exhibiting animals, and who claim the expertise to do so, should face tough scrutiny and demanding standards. The provincial government should strictly enforce exotic animal regulations to ensure there is no room for self-aggrandizing amateurs who put public safety and animal welfare at risk.

Peter Fricker is the projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society