- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

SALISBURY, Md. — The alligator is just about a foot long with wide baby eyes and a jaw that looks as if it could hardly manage a carrot.

It’s what the alligator will become in a few years that landed it with Jim Rapp, director of the Salisbury Zoo. That’s where the juvenile gator was sent with other exotic pets seized by state officials.

Mr. Rapp and other animal advocates are pushing for lawmakers to tighten Maryland’s rules on which animals can be kept as pets, saying the Internet and animal programs on TV have caused an explosion of people acquiring exotic animals.

“Go on the Internet and search for ‘tiger cub.’ You can find one to buy,” Mr. Rapp said.

Maryland calls some pets off limits, except to licensed handlers. These include large cats, venomous snakes and the alligator, which was found in a Salisbury pet shop.

But a 2004 proposal in the General Assembly to expand pet laws to ban more animals, including small primates and more snakes, sputtered amid opposition from exotic-animal lovers who say the government shouldn’t tell people which pets they can have.

“I think that if you have the space and you have the money and you have the knowledge, then you should be able to keep what you want to keep,” said Holli Friedland of Baltimore, who works with a reptile and amphibian rescue group and has opposed the exotic-pet bill.

The bill, which sponsors say will be considered again next session, highlighted an animal rights divide many pet owners have never heard of.

Wildlife authorities concede that they have no idea how many exotic or wild animals Marylanders might be keeping as pets, and the bill brought to Annapolis dozens of exotic-pet fans that lawmakers didn’t know existed.

“I didn’t realize there were private parties, untrained individuals, who were keeping animals who were really unreliable as a household pet,” said Delegate Pauline H. Menes, Prince George’s Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Both sides are gearing up for another fight over exotic pets. The Humane Society of the United States, which originally suggested the bill, sent its director of captive wildlife protection to Annapolis to persuade lawmakers to pass it.

“You cannot be messing around with things like lions, tigers, bears, primates and just hope for the best. Someone’s going to hurt,” said Richard Farinato, the Humane Society director who works at a Texas sanctuary for discarded or dangerous exotic pets.

Mr. Farinato and other supporters say exotic pets could hurt their owners or escape and maul strangers.

Opponents also have taken issue with how the pet ban would be enforced.

Bill supporters also cite the possibility of exotic pets, especially pet monkeys, spreading disease.

“We don’t know what the next exotic disease is that may jump from primate to human,” Mr. Rapp said.

Mr. Farinato said some monkeys carry hepatitis B.

To Richard Hahn, director of the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, Md., the fears of animal attacks or disease outbreaks are exaggerated. He doesn’t keep any exotic animals as pets — and as a licensed animal exhibitor, he wouldn’t be affected by the bill — but he pointed out that far more people are hurt by dogs than by exotic pets.

“This is something that is much ado about nothing,” Mr. Hahn said.

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