Trouble at wild-animal parks? Study cites lax US regulations for private exhibitors.

The grainy picture, taken at a private wild-animal park, shows a girl reaching out to pet, or grab, the tail of a full-grown leopard. How will the leopard react?

As the debate over private ownership of exotic pets intensifies in the US, attention is also beginning to fall on private wildlife exhibits that display "big cats" like lions, tigers, and leopards.

Licensed by the US government, these parks are required to put "significant barriers" between visitors and big cats. But there's enough gray area in the law so that some facilities permit close contact with the animals, including touching them – sometimes with tragic results.

In the year since 17-year-old Haley Hilderbrand was fatally mauled while posing for her senior photo with a leashed tiger at a Kansas wild-animal park, pressure has grown at federal and state levels to explicitly ban public contact with big cats at facilities that are licensed and regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In April, Kansas became the first state to ban direct contact between humans and potentially dangerous animals at wildlife exhibits. It also joined 21 states that prohibit private ownership of certain big cats.

Last month, Rep. Jim Ryun (R) of Kansas introduced legislation in Congress to beef up the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which governs animal safety at USDA-regulated facilities. His bill would prohibit direct contact between big cats and the public and require the USDA to write public-safety regulations for exhibitor licensees.

Activists say AWA rules are too weak to ensure that the animals are securely kept and well maintained – or to protect humans from the animals on display. "We're not even that critical of the USDA because it doesn't really have the authority it needs to deal with the public-safety problem," says Greg Wetstone of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a Yarmouth Port, Mass., animal rights group.

About 5,000 lions, tigers, and other big cats are kept by nearly 700 USDA big-cat licensees in the United States. Someone seeking a license to exhibit tigers is subject to requirements similar to those for someone seeking a goat license, IFAW reported last week, after a year-long investigation of such facilities.

As a result, in states where private ownership of exotic animals is banned, people can legally keep their animals by getting a USDA license as an exhibitor. In a rising number of cases, license applicants are mom-and-pop outfits building animal collections.

"These animals are dangerous, and it takes a lot to contain and feed them," says Mr. Wetstone of the IFAW, which included in its report the grainy photo of the girl touching the leopard. "So some folks decide to make a few bucks and escape state rules barring them as pets. They go get a USDA license."

The IFAW report – which looked at 42 wild-animal exhibits in 11 states, all USDA-licensed – cites these problems.

•Most of these big-cat facilities are "structurally unsound."

•Most allow public contact between people and big cats.

•"Vermin and grossly inadequate sewage disposal" are often evident. Meat fed to big cats is often rotten.

•Many facilities have no attendants at big-cat exhibits, and some "allowed children to work as attendants."

In the past decade, there have been 13 big-cat-related incidents in Florida, 12 in Texas, six in California, and five each in Illinois, Nevada, Minnesota, and Kansas. Since 1990, 13 people have died in these incidents, IFAW says.

A USDA spokesman says AWA regulations are adequate to keep the public safe and are zealously policed by its team of inspectors.

"There is no public-safety crisis," says Darby Holladay with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "Whenever any incident occurs, the USDA animal-care program looks into it. If there's a possible violation of the Animal Welfare Act, enforcement action is taken."

The process can be slow. In the case of the park in Kansas where Hilderbrand was mauled, the USDA has yet to decide on whether to revoke the operator's big-cat license.

Critics of the IFAW report say it fails to deliver specific violations at specific facilities. "I don't think it's a well-informed report," says Marcus Cook, spokesman for the Feline Conservation Federation, which represents big-cat exhibitors. "If they know something, let's report it. If you've got a valid complaint, let's make it to the USDA. Don't just throw a bunch of numbers out there."

An IFAW member says the group has more than 2,000 photos documenting the violations cited in its report. "Our staff member was at [one] facility when a leopard bit the finger off an untrained worker," says Josephine Martell, a principal author of the report. "You can't just say, 'here's the tiger. Take care of him. I'm going to get some coffee.' But that's what's happening."

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