Tiger attacks have animal agencies, legislators calling for stronger laws

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- A federal inspection at a southwest Missouri animal attraction where tigers attacked a worker this week points to previous safety problems there.

The 2007 inspection at Predator World notes three instances of animals getting out of their pens: two wolves that escaped into the community; a grizzly bear that remained on the property but was able to kill a tiger; and a fox that was hit by a car.

But it wasn't clear Tuesday if the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducted the inspection, took action against the property as a result of those findings.

Two separate tiger attacks in two days in Missouri have law enforcement officials, animal agencies and legislators calling for tougher exotic animal laws.

They say a patchwork of laws means no single agency in the state or nation is responsible for law enforcement and inspections related to exotic animals like large carnivores.

On Monday, a 16-year-old worker entered a tiger pen at the Predator World attraction in Branson West was attacked by three of the big cats. The boy remained in critical condition Tuesday. A 26-year-old volunteer had part of his leg below the knee amputated after he was attacked by a tiger Sunday at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal facility in Warren County.

Barr was in satisfactory condition Tuesday at a St. Louis hospital.

Both attacks are still being investigated, and no one has been charged.

The Wesa-A-Geh-Ya facility, which used to have a license to exhibit its animals through the USDA, surrendered that license in 2003 and then had it revoked after a number of violations were alleged on site.

The Missouri Department of Conservation visits the location at least annually to check on animal species that are native to the state, like mountain lions, wolves and a bear -- though the wolves at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya are Arctic wolves.

"There's never been any problem with them mistreating the animals or problems with the enclosures," said Dan Zarlenga, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation. The agency does not do inspections of animals not native to Missouri, like the tigers.

Sandra Smith, one of the owners of Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, said existing regulations are confusing and problematic. She said she had wanted to make cages on site more secure, but was told she couldn't without a local permit from planning and zoning.

"If there's going to be more regulations, put someone on the job who knows what they're doing," she said.

Smith, who said she was making homemade chicken soup for the hospitalized Barr at his request, said she's getting out of animal care all together. She said she's started looking for new homes for the 49 animals on her property.

Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison said Wesa-A-Geh-Ya owners needed to take responsibility for the tiger attack, saying they were the ones who decided to house wild animals on the site behind chain-link fences. He'd like the state to improve exotic animal laws, but in recent weeks he proposed changes at the county level.

"I think it's such a politically charged topic: What do you do with these exotic animals?" he said.

Both Harrison and Stone County Sheriff Richard Hill, where the other tiger attack took place, said in Missouri owners are supposed to register their exotic animals with their sheriff's department. But they said the law doesn't specify how soon after possessing an animal someone must register. The law also lacks requirements for proper enclosures, or how often the registration needs to be updated.

Predator World, which authorities said has also been called the Branson West Reptile Gardens, did not respond to requests for comment.

The USDA report, provided to The Associated Press by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals animal rights organization, notes that two of the previous animal incidents at Predator World occurred during storms.

The fox escaped after a tree fell on its enclosure during an ice storm. The bear also escaped from its enclosure when a tree limb fell after a storm "allowing it to enter the enjoining enclosure and kill an adult female tiger."

Hill said he worries that some exotic animal owners aren't registering the creatures. He said in severe weather, authorities will not have accurate, updated information about what potentially dangerous animals are residing in their counties.

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