When Bekah Weitz’ phone rings, she never knows what is waiting for her on the other end of the line.
During one of her shifts working animal control for the Eau Claire County Humane Association in 2005, a confused officer responding to a house fire in Dunn County called for backup after being tipped off that a shed attached to the burning house contained several pet cats — big cats.
More specifically, tigers. And no one knew they were there prior to the fire.
Weitz advised the officer not to act until she and other animal control officers arrived on the scene. If the tigers were to escape, Weitz said, they should be considered extremely dangerous and the officers should take action to defend themselves and those in the neighborhood if necessary.
While en route to the scene, Weitz received another phone call from the officer: The tigers had been found, but all of them had died from smoke inhalation.
Recalling the incident, Weitz — now a humane investigator for Monroe County — said that “as horrible as that was for them, it was probably the best case scenario for everybody involved because it didn't mean that there were loose tigers in the area.”
Wisconsin is one of just five states that allow residents to keep almost any animal they want as a pet. The others are Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina.
And while the United Nations unanimously adopted its first resolution on July 30 to curb illegal wildlife trafficking, Wisconsin’s lax laws make the state a draw for animal smugglers, critics say.
The "lion-like" creature on the loose that prompted a massive police search in and around Milwaukee has raised questions about the wisdom of allowing dangerous exotic animals to be kept as pets.
Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said that it is easier for someone in Wisconsin to own a dangerous exotic animal, such as a tiger, than to own a native animal, including a white-tailed deer.
“In some cases, it's easier to own a tiger than a dog,” Leahy added. “Many places will require the dog be registered and vaccinated. There is no such requirement for a pet tiger.”
And although there are some federal laws governing the sale, breeding, transportation and exhibition of exotic animals, critics say there are not enough inspectors to police the wild animal trade. Regulation also is fragmented among several state and federal agencies, allowing some repeat offenders to evade enforcement, records show.
Some municipalities in Wisconsin, including Janesville, do ban some exotic animals. Milwaukee does not have a ban on specific pets but does prohibit ownership of animals that have a known propensity to attack people, other domestic pets or animals.
An effort in the 2013-14 session to ban “the possession, propagation and sale of dangerous exotic animals” in Wisconsin failed to advance in the Legislature. A similar bill is being pushed again this year.
However, some animal rescue organizations say stricter legislation could prohibit ownership of common pets like lizards and small snakes. Dealers and breeders argue some exotic animals live longer in captivity than they would have in their native habitat.
As a humane investigator, Weitz’ primary duties are to handle animal neglect, cruelty and abuse complaints, most of which involve cats, dogs, horses and cows. But, since she works in Wisconsin, every so often she encounters exotic, often dangerous animals being kept as pets.
Weitz said that while she would like to see stricter rules regulating exotics in Wisconsin, she believes owners should be able to keep their exotics as long as the animals are well cared for and not a safety risk.
“No one's going to be saying, ‘You can't keep a Chinese water dragon in your home’ because that's like a 2-inch lizard,” Weitz said. “What people are going to be saying is, ‘You can't keep a crocodile in your home,’ you know? (Restricting) dangerous exotics is really the goal.”
Many animals, few inspectors
While there are no laws to regulate private ownership of exotic pets in Wisconsin, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues permits to people who sell, handle or exhibit warm-blooded animals or use them in research.
Owners of deer parks, zoos, petting farms and wildlife parks are among those required to be registered or licensed.
USDA inspectors are supposed to conduct regular, unannounced visits to licensed or registered facilities to ensure animals are receiving proper veterinary care, being treated humanely and have clean, ventilated enclosures. Compliance with these minimum requirements is mandated under the Animal Welfare Act, according to Andrea McNally, intergovernmental affairs specialist for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington, D.C.
"We use a risk-based inspection system to focus our resources, allowing more frequent and in-depth inspections at problem facilities and fewer at those that are consistently in compliance,” McNally said.
There are 193 active licensees and registrants in Wisconsin, and four inspectors assigned to the state, according to McNally. This number is too small, Leahy said, resulting in too few inspections being conducted — which, combined with the USDA’s cursory checks of potential licensees’ backgrounds, can let violations slip through the system, the national humane society said.
It can take repeated, serious violations for a license to be revoked.
For example, it took 19 “willful” violations between 2009 and 2011 at Lakewood Zoo in the Oconto County town of Mountain for the USDA to take action against the zoo’s owner and operator, Casey Ludwig. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.
A complaint, filed in June 2014, cited Ludwig for several serious violations, including failure to provide “minimally adequate veterinary care” and for failing to allow inspectors into the facility. Ludwig also was cited for “failure to provide a tiger with sufficient food,” causing it to develop bone disease.
A judge concluded that Ludwig’s “willful” violations showed he was “unqualified to be licensed,” and revoked his license in January, which, McNally said, prevents him from applying for a license in the future. But Ludwig’s license had already expired at the end of 2011 — just over three years prior to its revocation — and the zoo had closed in 2012.
Leahy said the Ludwig case shows how “slow the federal agency is to act against chronic AWA violators.” When asked why the USDA took so long to act, McNally said cases involving serious AWA violations undergo additional legal review before a complaint is issued.
“The investigative and enforcement process does take time in order to gather the evidence required to proceed to prosecution,” she said.
Want to buy a tiger?
For Wisconsin residents, purchasing an exotic pet can be as easy as the click of a computer mouse.
On Exotic Animals For Sale, one can buy a breeding pair of wallabies for $5,500; a 3-week-old, bottle-fed black and white capuchin monkey that wears diapers and clothes for $6,800; an Arctic fox pup for $500; a two-toed sloth for $4,400; and a zebra filly for $5,000.
Weitz said part of her job involves patrolling websites for exotic animals for sale. On one occasion, she came across an alligator for sale on Craigslist in Wisconsin and reported it to authorities. But oftentimes, she said, they cannot take action because it is not illegal unless a municipality has an ordinance against it.
Even if USDA licensees do import exotic animals with the proper permits, Leahy said there is nothing to prevent them from giving animals to unlicensed individuals.
Leahy noted that Animal Haven Zoo in Weyauwega offered to give two tigers to an ABC 20/20 undercover reporter in 2012, which is not illegal. When asked for comment, Dawn Hofferber, co-owner of the zoo, said her husband Jim would have given the tigers to the reporter only if the reporter had a USDA license, which would have required a site inspection prior to the tigers’ arrival at their new home.
Hofferber later added, “We are a family-owned and run zoo and do not approve of a lot of what goes on in the animal world … we do everything in our power to help and save any animal that comes our way.”
Individuals also can obtain exotic pets by visiting animal auctions. USDA-licensed facilities in Wisconsin can and do legally consign various animals to the auctions. They include emus, ostriches and kangaroos, according to certificates of veterinary inspection provided to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in response to an open records request.
For instance, Mark Schoebel, the owner of Timbavati Wildlife Park in Wisconsin Dells and Animal Entertainments, a Neshkoro business that rents out animals for shows and fairs, has consigned some of his animals to the Lolli Brothers Livestock Market in Macon, Missouri, which Leahy said conducts the country’s largest exotic animal auctions.
A certificate dated April 6 showed that Animal Entertainments sent 14 exotic animals — including a 10-month-old crowned crane, an 8-month-old zebra and a blackbuck (antelopes native to India whose survival is considered “near threatened”) — to the Lolli Brothers market.
“Auctions are of special concern because they foster impulse purchases, and people with no qualifications whatsoever can purchase animals with especially complex needs,” Leahy said.
Schoebel failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact him over the previous two months. In a statement issued by his attorney Thursday, Schoebel said he is following all laws related to consignment of animals to auction. Schoebel said in the statement that he has never been accused of any “physical or psychological harm” to animals.
“I have been licensed by the USDA, who is responsible for animal welfare and care,” the statement said. “I have been in good standing with the department for many decades. … My life has been devoted to animals.”
However, Schoebel did have a run-in with law enforcement in the mid-1980s stemming from a federal investigation into wild animal smuggling. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee to four counts of violating federal wildlife laws, paid a $1,000 fine and got four years of probation for failing to properly document or get permits to transport protected waterfowl, raccoons and 17 bears.
In his plea deal, Schoebel agreed to work with prosecutors to uncover illegal trafficking of animals.
Hard to care for seized animals
When bad things happen, humane officers like Weitz and Mark Hess are some of the first people to respond.
Hess has held various titles at the Waukesha Humane Animal Welfare Society for nearly four decades, and currently serves as its operations manager. In his career, he has responded to calls involving a runaway ostrich, an escaped wallaby, a primate surrendered after its owner died and a deadly spitting cobra that had bitten its owner.
Weitz said although she knew she would encounter exotic, potentially dangerous animals when she became a humane officer, formal training to handle exotics was never provided to or required of her.
“All of the training I've had has been sought of my own volition and, sometimes, paid for at my own expense,” she said.
Weitz has concerns for police officers and others who respond to emergencies involving exotic animals.
“It's not fair to ask our police officers, who go out every single day and potentially risk their lives in dangerous situations … to then face off against animals that can legitimately kill them,” she said.
Even if an animal is corralled, the question arises, what to do with it?
One of Hess’ most recent challenges has been finding a home for more than 300 chinchillas seized from a Waukesha home in late March. So far the Waukesha humane society has invested more than $100,000 to care for the small rodents native to South America. It is a cost the organization will likely never recoup.
Many larger, more dangerous exotics in need of a home have found refuge at Valley of the Kings, a 10-acre animal sanctuary and retreat in Sharon funded largely from donations and by the sanctuary’s president and founder, Jill Carnegie and her family and friends.
Many of the animals at the sanctuary, including lions, tigers, a ti-liger (an extremely rare cross between a liger and a tiger), wolf hybrids, bears, foxes and bobcats, were abandoned by private owners or donated by zoos that didn’t have room to house them. Others were seized by the government or the state Department of Natural Resources or discovered in drug raids, Carnegie said.
Kubwa, a male tiger weighing over 1,000 pounds, was dropped off at the sanctuary when he was four months old and weighed 60 pounds, Carnegie said. She believes the owner had to give him away because a local ordinance banned ownership of big cats and the tiger had begun to wreck the owner’s home.
And Lena, a dainty female tiger, was one of a dozen big cats taken from an ex-circus trainer hoarding them in 4-foot by 5-foot, tarp-covered crates whose locks had rusted shut in his Indiana home, Carnegie said.
Andy Carlson, who has been volunteering at Valley of the Kings for over 20 years, said when Lena finally worked up the courage to venture out of her crate at the sanctuary, she stared upward, fascinated by the sky. She had never seen it before.
Hess said many of his cases end in tragedy for the animals. Euthanasia is used as a last resort when a home cannot be found for an animal. Sometimes that is the only choice if a dangerous animal is a public health or safety risk, he said.
“Oftentimes, communities don’t even think about these situations until one happens, and then they’ll scramble and find out they have nothing on the books,” he said, adding that animals are the main victims when regulations are lax.
Communities regulate some animals
While there is no statewide ban on exotics, some municipalities have passed legislation on their own to ban certain types of animals within their borders.
Janesville, for instance, prohibits any “wild, exotic, and/or vicious pets including raccoons, any pigs, and poisonous or constricting snakes such as pythons or boas.” Ferrets and non-poisonous or non-constricting snakes are not included in the ban.
An effort to extend such a ban statewide has failed to gain traction in the Legislature.
In January 2014, Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, and a half-dozen other state representatives authored Assembly Bill 703. It sought to prohibit “the possession, propagation, and sale of dangerous exotic animals,” including lions and tigers, nonnative bears, various primates and crocodilians, including alligators, crocodiles and caimans.
Under AB 703, those who already owned animals would be grandfathered in, as long as they registered their pets. They would also be required to notify authorities if their animal escaped. Veterinarians and other professionals who have been formally trained to handle wildlife would have been exempt from the law.
This year, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, is pushing another bill, not yet introduced, to ban ownership of dangerous exotics. Wanggaard said in a memo to other legislators the bill is in response to the search for the Milwaukee “lion” and a 2013 incident in which police and the Racine Zoo discovered rattlesnakes, alligators, crocodiles, a snapping turtle and a Gila monster in a Kenosha home, the Associated Press reported.
Leahy said her organization hopes lawmakers pass the bill before something bad happens, adding, “Ohio finally passed a law after a suicidal man released nearly 50 big cats, bears, primates and wolves in Zanesville.”
Possible ban raises concern
But some in the industry worry a ban could result in legislation prohibiting the ownership of even common household pets. Others have said continuing to allow the keeping of exotic pets is in the best interest of the animals themselves.
Bill Zelenski, owner and operator of the USDA-licensed Wild Bill’s Exotics in Waupaca, said he buys, sells, breeds, rents and trades “any kind of animal you can imagine.”
Having been in the industry since he was in middle school, Zelenski has contacts all over the world. The Milwaukee County Zoo is among his buyers. Zelenski said everyone he purchases animals from is licensed by the USDA, except for those who sell him reptiles and birds, which are not regulated by the USDA.
Zelenski said he is “100 percent” against stricter exotic animal laws in Wisconsin because he does not believe lawmakers have enough experience or knowledge on the subject.
However, “If they want to have animal people like myself mentor and do courses to teach people and try to regulate through our own industry … that's great.”
Zelenski also noted that some of his captive exotics live longer than their wild peers. He currently has a 21-year-old ring-tailed lemur that recently fathered twins; ring-tailed lemurs living wild in Madagascar usually live to be 16 to 17 years old, according to the National Zoo.
Cindy Steinle, owner of Small Scale Reptile Rescue in Milwaukee, said her local exotic reptile community tries to self-regulate so that irresponsible owners are admonished by their peers. Steinle said it is unfair for legislators to “lump (reptiles) in” with exotic mammals in statewide bans because they are popular, conventional pets.
If a ban were to be passed, Steinle believes both the humans and animals would suffer, especially if existing pets are not grandfathered in.
“Depending on the reach of this ban in respect to keeping reptiles as companion animals, many families will find themselves forced to have their pets killed in order to comply with the law, as rescue groups like mine will be overwhelmed with the number of pets who are suddenly homeless,” she said.
But some pet reptiles are far from harmless.
Weitz recalled one incident she responded to in early 2012 when officers in Chippewa County needed help rescuing a 22-foot-long, female Burmese python in a wooden box uncovered during a police search. Weitz, the only one on the scene who was trained to handle reptiles and amphibians, said the python could have struck and killed her in a matter of seconds.
After heaving the snake into a pillowcase, Weitz brought her to a nearby humane association for holding. While the snake rested and warmed up, Weitz worked on rehoming her so she wouldn’t be on the receiving end of a lethal injection.
“She sat there looking like, ‘Now what?’ ” Weitz remembered.
The same could be asked of Wisconsin lawmakers as the latest piece of exotics legislation pends while a “lion-like” creature — likely an escaped exotic pet, Weitz said — leads authorities on a chase through Milwaukee.
“It's just not fair that someone can move next door to my kid and keep … a tiger,” Weitz said. “If my child were to accidentally get in their yard or the tiger were accidentally to get in mine, you know, it's not worth it.”
Portions of this story were first published in Curb, a magazine produced by University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.