‘Lion’ on loose in Milwaukee could be pet or wild animal
TNS Regional News
Jul 28, 2015 at 10:37 AM
If a lion-like creature is indeed on the loose in Milwaukee, it could just as easily be an escaped or released pet as a wild animal.
Officials say there are many more big cats owned by individuals and farms in the U.S. than most people would guess — perhaps 5,000 to 10,000.
And Wisconsin is one of just six states where owning such an animal is not against the law, meaning there could be hundreds of such creatures in homes and on farms throughout the state. The other states are North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama and West Virginia.
Without state regulation, most of the exotic animal trade in Wisconsin occurs below the official radar and among people who may not be qualified to transport or care for the animals, said Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
“There’s no way of knowing,” she said. “There’s not a paper trail.”
Instead, it’s up to municipalities to decide how to handle, or whether to tolerate, cases of pet big cats.
“It’s really a patchwork,” Gilson said.
A Milwaukee city ordinance doesn’t explicitly ban the ownership of big cats by name but it does prohibit the possession of animals with a known disposition for attacking or injuring humans or domestic animals, as well as any animal that cannot be effectively vaccinated against rabies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers lions, tigers, cougars and leopards as dangerous animals, only to be kept by qualified, trained professionals.
“Big cats are a problem,” said Todd Weiler, spokesman for the city’s department of neighborhood services. “So the old adage ‘never smile at a crocodile,’ I think, would apply to big cats and thus they would be prohibited in the city.”
Weiler added that if the mysterious resurfacing animal turns out to be a Milwaukee resident’s pet, the city would likely fine the owner and quarantine and remove the animal.
A USDA license is required for anyone who publicly exhibits warm-blooded animals.
There are 403 such animal exhibitors in Wisconsin — but that figure includes deer farms, zoos and petting zoos as well as exotic animals wholesalers.
Last year, Republican state Rep. Warren Petryk failed to win legislative support for his proposed bill to ban the sale, breeding and possession of a number of species, including nonnative big cats, bears, alligators, crocodiles and apes. The measure would have exempted veterinarians and facilities with trained wildlife professionals.
The bill would have also required owners to notify the authorities if an animal escaped and would have grandfathered in those who already own dangerous exotic animals as long as they register them.
Jeff Kozlowski’s big cat rescue center in the Wisconsin village of Rock Springs is home to 19 tigers, five lions and four leopards. He said he has been pushing for the state to pass a law regulating the ownership of big cats for seven years with no luck.
Kozlowski is USDA-licensed, which means he’s required to provide a certain amount of space, veterinary care, strong cages and clean feeding areas for his animals. Once or twice a year, inspectors visit to check on the cats’ welfare.
“If you are a private owner that just wanted to have eight tigers in your backyards as pets, they will not inspect you,” Kozlowski said. “You won’t need a license in this state.
“As of right now, a guy could obtain a big cat, go into Menards, buy a dog kennel, and put that cat in it — unless he lives somewhere with an exotic animal ordinance, he’s not breaking any laws. If someone goes and buys a dog kennel, is that going to hold back a tiger?”
Kozlowski said people can shell out $500 or $1,000 for an exotic cat online. Some will buy them as cubs, and charge for people to take photos with them, then try to dump the animals when they get too big to be safe.
Eleven of his cats came from a backyard breeder in Flat Rock, Ind., he said.
Jill Carnegie, who 43 years ago founded Valley of the Kings Sanctuary and Retreat in the Wisconsin village of Sharon, has 39 animals — among them lions, tigers, cougars, bears, bobcats, wolf hybrids — on her 10-acre plot of land. She said most of her animals come from government seizures during drug raids, zoo surplus and individuals calling her asking to take large cats off of their hands.
Once, she got a tiger from a woman who wanted to get rid of the animal when it got too big.
Carnegie said there could be hundreds of private exotic pets in Milwaukee.
“There’s so many animals kept in big cities — from cougars, to alligators, to dangerous snakes,” she said. “There’s a huge market.”
Without state regulation, Kozlowski said, Wisconsin could become a haven for exotic animal breeders and sellers who face tougher regulations elsewhere.
“The problem is if they don’t put something into effect, all these people in other states are going to need a place to go with their animals,” he said. “Where do you think they’re going to go? The only state that has no laws … It’s a huge risk.”
It also contributes to situation like the one in Milwaukee where an animal — which he said looks like a mountain lion — could be unaccounted for and on the loose.
“If that cat was a private owner’s cat, and it’s caused this much trouble, they’re never going to come out and say ‘we lost our cat.’ Especially if something bad happens,” he said.
Milwaukee police said it received 14 calls over the weekend from citizens who reported seeing an animal they believed to be a lion. The first report of the big cat came a week ago.
On Saturday night, a police sergeant responding to one of those calls saw what could be a large, wild cat. Police armed with rifles staked out the area along Lincoln Creek on Saturday night and Sunday, but the animal was never located.
Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp said Monday five conservation wardens worked in Milwaukee over the weekend to help find the big cat.
“We will assist where we can and help differentiate fact from fiction,” Stepp said.
Milwaukee police said late Monday that they had nothing to report on the big cat but would continue to respond to any sightings.
By Marion Renault - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)
(Bruce Vielmetti and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.)
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