New York tries to tame its urban jungle

Pet owners bristle at a new list that bans wild and exotic animals.

Hippos in Harlem need to find a place to hide, and the future isn't looking too bright for brown bears in Brooklyn.

Just in case New Yorkers were tempted to walk their pet tigers in the glitz of Times Square, these animals and almost 200 others were put on a list of pets banned from the Big Apple.

The city's health code had already banned ownership of any species deemed "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous, or naturally inclined to do harm." (So far, New Yorkers themselves have escaped the list.)

But wild is a relative term in the city that never sleeps. "No matter how tamed a wild animal may appear to be around a person or people, it is still a wild animal by nature, and it's prone to unpredictable behavior," says Board of Health spokesman John Gadd.

Officials hope the exhaustive list - amended to the health code last month - will clarify the law for pet owners and reduce the number of cat fights in court.

But now it isn't just the coyote owners doing the howling. In true New York fashion, protests are coming from owners of iguanas and, especially, ferrets - both banned by the unambiguous list.

"We should not have to worry about our animals being taken away from us by big brother," says Manhattan resident Gary Kaskel. When he first received a slinky ferret as gift, he didn't think he'd keep it. But nine years, six ferrets, and four lawsuits later, Mr. Kaskel contends there's no better pet.

"They're wonderful pets for city dwellers," he says as his current ferret, Ginger, cuddles on his shoulders. "They're quiet, they're clean, they're fun, they're very whimsical animals." Kaskel, not surprisingly, has again gone to court to defend his right to keep her.

One person's cuddly companion can be another's wild beast, however. Mr. Gadd cites several cases in which ferrets have bitten and scratched people, particularly young children.

Nor is New York alone in its war over the animals. In California, there are annual debates in the legislature to lift a ban on ferrets. In South Carolina, even though health officials no longer advocate a ban, ferrets will remain illegal until the state legislature changes the law.

In New York, Iguana owners are no less upset than their ferret-loving friends. At a veterinarian clinic on East 39th Street - not too far from where King Kong scaled the Empire State Building - vet technician Lynde Hanscom sits with a three-foot iguana named Maggie.

"They're good companions that don't bark, don't shed fur, and are very affectionate in their own way," she says.

So far, many pet owners don't seem intimidated by the new stricture from health authorities. Kaskel insists he will keep Ginger despite the law, which will take effect in less than 90 days. "I can tell you one thing," he says. "They're not going to be taking my ferret."

Of course, everything in New York has political ramifications, and the animal ban is no different. Ferret fans, iguana advocates, and their well-wishers blame what they call the strict anti-animal stance on law-and-order Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), who appoints the four people to the health board. Recently, dog owners, too, balked when the mayor cracked down on New Yorkers walking their dogs without leashes.

AS MR. GIULIANI prepares for a likely US Senate run, pet owners say he should beware their wrath. Kaskel guesses there are 5,000 to 10,000 ferret-owners in New York City alone, based on the amount of food sold at pet stores. Presumably there are many more upstate, where they are perfectly legal. For now.

"I would definitely vote against the people responsible for this law," says Ms. Hanscom.

Gadd insists the amendment - which reads like a checklist of animals on Noah's ark - is far from frivolous. He says that in recent years officials have seized alligators, snapping turtles, wallabies (similar to small kangaroos), caimans (a type of crocodile), and venomous snakes. Owners of other banned animals such as giraffes or gorillas could not be found to discuss their plight.

In the end, New York's cramped geography may be the officials' best ally in keeping these animals out. Most people just don't have room in their apartments for, say, a hippo or giraffe.

Still, says Hanscom, "if I had high ceilings, I might reconsider."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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