Harold Epperson Apparently Opposed Rule to Ban Tigers
as quoted below. He also enables the FCF and USZA by serving as their secretary.
Tiger mauling prompts better legislation
Owners of the exotic could face more rules
By BENITA Y. WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star“We’re not trying to put zoos out of business. We just don’t want average Joe owning them (exotic animals)…We want strict regulations. We don’t feel our local and state people even knew what was going on.”
Mike Good, victim’s stepfather
Haley Hilderbrand’s stepfather says her family had no idea the Kansas girl planned to take her senior picture with a Siberian tiger at the local animal sanctuary.
But had they known, they might not have recognized the peril.
“Our community was unaware of the danger,” said the stepfather, Mike Good. “We got accustomed to seeing these pictures with tigers on display.”
Haley’s photo session ended in tragedy last August, when the tiger suddenly turned on the 17-year-old girl from Altamont, Kan., killing her instantly.
Now Good is among those pushing for stricter exotic animal regulations, which are to be discussed next month by the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission.
“We’re not trying to put zoos out of business,” Good said. “We just don’t want average Joe owning them (exotic animals)… We want strict regulations. We don’t feel our local and state people even knew what was going on.”
Some exotic animal enthusiasts are troubled by the proposal.
“A lack of regulation has led to some bad ownership and abuse, but what bothers me is that the response is to take away all of their (exotic animal owners’) rights, the good people and the bad,” said Lynn Culver, a director the Feline Conservation Federation.
No criminal charges have been filed in connection with Haley’s death Aug. 18 at Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary and Entertainment Productions in Mound Valley, Kan. Sanctuary owners have denied wrongdoing in their handling of animals.
Haley was a friend of the owners’ family and had been to the facility earlier to visit the baby tigers. She was killed posing with Shakka, a 7-year-old Siberian tiger.
Labette County officials called the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission to investigate Haley’s death, but the agency was powerless to act because Kansas has no laws regulating the ownership of exotic cats like tigers and lions.
Haley’s relatives, and others, want to change that. They are urging stringent state guidelines for those animals. The new rules would apply to lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs and leopards, as well as to large native animals currently regulated by the state, including bears, wolves and mountain lions.
Among the proposed requirements:
■ Owners of exotic animals would have to get annual state permits. To qualify, they first would have to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitors’ license and undergo annual federal inspections. They also would have to report the number of animals owned, tag the animals and have a plan and the equipment to catch an escaped animal.
■ Exotic animals could not be kept as pets.
■ Direct public contact with the animals would be prohibited.
■ The state could kill an escaped animal that poses a public danger or an animal that the agency declares feral, or wild, after being at large three days.
Permit fees as high as $500 and mandatory liability insurance of $250,000 also have been discussed. Accredited zoos would be exempt.
Kansas wildlife law enforcement director Kevin Jones said his department had been reviewing the state’s regulations for more than a year, but Haley’s death stepped up those talks.
“I think it brought to the forefront … that there really are issues with the ownership and possession of these animals,” Jones said. “Some didn’t realize people could possess them (inKansas).”
Missouri law requires all dangerous animals, including tigers, to be registered with local law enforcement, but there are no other state criteria for owning exotic cats, said a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, the Missouri Department of Conservation sets rules for owning native animals like bears, mountain lions and wolves and prohibits public contact with those animals.
In both states, some local jurisdictions have stricter laws.
Opponents of the Kansas proposals say the rules would unfairly punish responsible owners, whom they say play an important role in preserving many endangered species. They are especially troubled by insurance requirements, and they predict a ban on exotic pets would drive owners “underground,” threatening public safety and the animals’ welfare.
“If you try to prevent people from pursuing their passion, they will find a way,” said Harold Epperson, secretary and treasurer of the Feline Conservation Federation.
Instead, his group prefers to stress education and proper animal housing. They also oppose blanket bans on public contact, arguing that federal rules allow contact with baby exotic animals and some adult animals if a “readily identifiable and knowledgeable employee” is present.
In the episode that killed Haley, authorities said that Lost Creek co-owner Doug Billingsly was holding Shakka by a restraint when the animal attacked. Billingsly’s sister, Krista Moreno, has said her brother never let go of the restraint and placed himself between the tiger and Haley.
Eventually the animal had to be shot and killed. A subsequent examination revealed nothing abnormal in the animal, according to Labette County Sheriff William Blundell.
Doug Billingsly and his father, Keith Billingsly, have owned Lost Creek more than 10 years. They held federal exhibitor’s permits.
Neither the owners nor their attorney could be reached for comment in recent days.
Sheriff Blundell said the local investigation is inactive. “It’s been reviewed by the county attorney, and at this point it didn’t warrant criminal charges,” Blundell said.
But last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a petition alleging several “willful” violations against Lost Creek and its owners, including not having a proper policy for public contact with animals.
“Specifically, the respondent’s standard procedure was to allow the public including teenagers to have direct contact and pose for photographs, with adult tigers based on respondent Doug Billingsly’s claimed ability to determine ‘what kind of mood the animals were in…’ ,” inspectors said in their petition.
The petition also alleges that the owners failed to obtain a required agriculture license for their business. Other alleged violations include handling the tiger in a way that led to its death; not allowing federal access to the property three times in 2004 and once in January, and failing to properly house some animals, including bears, tigers and a black leopard.
Department spokesman Jim Rogers said each violation carries potential fines of up to $2,750, multiplied by the number of animals involved and the number of days in violation. The petition is awaiting an administrative hearing.
The Billingslys, in a written answer to the petition, denied any wrongdoing. They said that their licenses were in order, that Shakka was handled safely and that alleged deficiencies in animal housing either didn’t exist or were repaired.
They denied keeping inspectors away, saying the officials arrived unannounced, although Lost Creek does not keep set hours.
They also denied violating public contact rules during Haley’s photo session.
“The young lady involved with the pictures was not allowed to touch the cat during the photo shoot … The public has never been allowed to touch the cats for safety reasons.”
■ The Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission will discuss stricter controls on exotic animals when it meets at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 19 at Cabela’s, 10300 Cabela
To reach Benita Y. Williams, call (816) 234-7714 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org