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Lion mauling death: How dangerous are private zoos? (+video)

Animal behavior experts called the mauling death of a young woman in California an unfortunately predictable tragedy. Conservationists say too many exotic animals are kept privately in the US.

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According to Ms. Engebretson, trade in exotic animals continues to expand in the many unregulated and under-reported roadside menageries, private zoos, and what she calls “pseudo” sanctuaries.

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California has some of the strictest state laws governing care for wild animals, she notes, but it is one of only 21 states with meaningful regulations. Six states have none at all, she points out.

“It’s always difficult to give admonishments at a time like this,” she says, but adds that at minimum, stricter protocols governing behavior around animals might have prevented a tragedy.

“Cats are predators,” adds Zara McDonald, executive director of the Bay Area Felidae Conservation Fund, “and I don’t care how tame anyone thinks one might be, they are always a wild animal with the ability to hurt humans.”

IFAW is calling on Congress to pass the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, proposed legislation introduced this past fall that IFAW says will be reintroduced next month with bipartisan support.

The bill would prohibit the private possession and breeding of tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, cheetahs, and jaguars, and any hybrids of these species. The bill tackles both animal welfare and public safety because, Coppola notes, law enforcement officials are ill-equipped to handle crises related to the exotic animal industry.

In the 2011 disaster in Zanesville, Ohio, in which the suicidal owner of a private menagerie set free his lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, and others, and law enforcement officials said they had few options other than to hunt down and shoot over 50 rare and endangered animals before they could hurt local residents.

“This is not what they are trained to do,” Coppola says of the law enforcement officers, adding that in an era of dwindling public funds, “they don’t have the resources, either.”

Such legislation is overdue, says Angela Mertig, sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., commenting on the death of the young intern, Hanson.

While her family has been impacted by a tragic loss, her death matters also “because we need to be continually reminded that we cannot act as if we are in perpetual control of the natural world,” Professor Mertig says via e-mail.

This extends beyond our impact on individual animals, she notes.

“It includes how we treat all life on this planet and the planet itself,” she says, adding, that humans have created numerous ecological messes “because we mistakenly believe that we can do whatever we want to this planet and its life forms without repercussions,” she says.

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