CHARLESTON - State officials say a list of dangerous and exotic animals was never intended to ban pets and livestock, but rather protect the public from wild animals which should not be owned by individuals.
A draft list of banned animals put out by the Dangerous Wild Animals Board last month raised eyebrows and anger as it included small exotic pets such as hedgehogs and sugar gliders as well as animals often classified as livestock such as rabbits and alpacas.
Officials said in many cases those animals were already exempt under other state laws, but agreed the list was confusing and contained strange omissions, such as not banning monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas, which could be both dangerous and a health threat due to disease.
In 2011, a 5-foot-long pet alligator got loose in a residential neighborhood in Parkersburg. Officials said there were not state or local laws to prohibit the alligator from being kept as a pet.
On Thursday the board voted to scrap the original list and begin using a list adopted by Ohio legislators after a 2011 incident where zoo animals were released into a residential neighborhood. A technical committee representing the state Division of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Resources and other entities such as the Humane Association will meet this week to review the new list and make corrections and additions in part based on the old list. Some of the language in the new list is specific to Ohio and some dangerous animals, such as species of fish, were not included at all in the Ohio list.
The Dangerous Wild Animals Board will meet again July 30 to draft a final list. The list remains on public comment until noon Aug. 1.
Butch Antolini, director of communications for the state Department of Agriculture, said the office has been inundated with angry calls concerning the list and what animals should and should not be banned. The department has been gathering public comments in written form but cannot take verbal comments. As of Thursday the department had logged 206 written comments, all but one complaining about some aspect of the list.
"We've gotten a lot of phone calls from people that verbally want to provide comment," he said. "We've gotten some irate people on the phone that are upset. They think their pets are going to be taken away or it will hurt their business."
State Rep. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, was one of the sponsors of the wild animals bill, and said the legislation was never intended to regulate pets or livestock.
"I think the list that came out was absolutely overboard," he said. "That was never the intent of the bill."
Part of the issues, Swartzmiller said, was different agencies came to the table with different concerns and agendas. The Humane Association feared for the safety of some of the smaller animals, like sugar gliders, that were being kept as pets but could be easily harmed or killed. The state DNR looked at invasive species that could threaten ecosystems, while DHHR looked at issues like contracting salmonella from turtles and other reptiles.
The result was a list that tried to include animals from all different perspectives.
"They came to the table with everything they could think of," Swartzmiller said. "I really do understand why people think this is crazy, because when I looked at the list I thought, 'this is crazy.'"
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick said while he appreciated the Legislature's action on wild and dangerous animals, he agreed the initial list was too broad and too confusing.
"The Legislature did the right thing," Helmick said. "They did the right thing, but then the rules got muddled. There was a significant number of animals on that list that shouldn't have been. It went too far."
Helmick said the incident in Zanesville showed lawmakers something needed to be done to keep dangerous wild animals out of neighborhoods, but the original banned animals list muddied that mission.
"We're not going to overreact," he said. "We're going to protect the people of West Virginia."
Even before the Zanesville animal release, lawmakers had debated having better controls in place. Several years ago, Swartzmiller said, the state saw an outbreak of monkeypox disease, which can be transferred to humans, from prairie dogs that were sold as pets. Certain kinds of exotic birds can carry livestock-devastating diseases that need to be controlled, he said.
Those initial attempts at animal-control legislation fell through, Swartzmiller said, but the issues continue to crop up.
In 2011 police and WVDNR officials had to capture a 5-foot-long alligator in a residential neighborhood in Parkersburg. The animal was an escaped pet. At the time, city officials said there was no state or local code preventing the animal from being kept as a pet.
Swartzmiller said that was a perfect example of the need for dangerous animal control legislation.
"It's a public safety issue," he said. "At the end of the day we want to keep the common-sense factor in this."
Even after the list is approved and filed by the Dangerous Wild Animals Board, Swartzmiller said discussion will not be over. The list will return to legislative committees and be reviewed by the participating agencies. The final list will then be sent to the Legislature for action, hopefully in early 2015, he said.