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Dave Olson, Published September 13 2009

Minnesota, North Dakota rules vary on exotic animals

ROLLAG, Minn. - When Rachel Lampl talks about living with a pair of black and white capuchin monkeys, it sounds like she’s describing Thing One and Thing Two, the dynamic duo from Dr. Seuss’s book, “The Cat in the Hat.”

“They’re like hyper 2-year-olds who will never outgrow their terrible twos,” Lampl said, her voice reflecting amusement more than irritation.

“If it isn’t locked up,” Lampl added, “they (the capuchins) will get in there and take everything out, just to see what’s in there.

“They’re so much fun,” she admitted, “it’s hard to get anything done.”

The monkeys are part of a menagerie Lampl keeps at her rural home near Rollag.

Other creatures include foxes and wallabies (a small relative of the kangaroo), as well as deer, ponies and an aging black-capped capuchin named Toby, who Lampl said was rescued from an abusive home.

“They starved his mate and children to death, and he was near starvation,” said Lampl, who estimated that Toby was in his late 20s when a friend rescued him from a painful life and gave him to Lampl several years ago.

When it comes to owning exotic animals in Minnesota and North Dakota, the states take different approaches.

While Minnesota lawmakers banned owning exotic pets earlier this decade, allowing an exception for those who already owned them, North Dakota has fewer restrictions on what types of animals people can own.

‘Where trouble comes’

“He is not angry, like you would expect him to be,” Lampl said of Toby. “But I cannot pick him up, because he is very shy and does not trust people.”

A believer in the right to own animals, Lampl said she has mixed feelings about a 2005 Minnesota law that prohibits people from keeping primates and other exotic animals as pets.

Lampl’s primates were grandfathered in under the law and she also has a federal license that permits ownership of exotic animals for breeding purposes.

“I think as citizens, we should have the right to have whatever kind of pets we want,” said Lampl.

“On the other hand,” she added, “I think if you’re going to have an exotic animal, you have to be responsible. Not everybody is responsible. And that’s where the trouble comes in.”

When Minnesota took steps to ban exotic pet ownership four years ago, several high-profile cases were in the news, including two situations involving tigers in Otter Tail County.

In both cases, owners were forced to give up their cats.

About nine years ago, a brouhaha erupted in Clay County when news got out that neighbors of Lampl’s were keeping a tiger on their property.

The tiger, named Frasier, was also grandfathered in under Minnesota’s 2005 law.

Frasier’s owner, Jerome Swedberg, declined to talk about his cat, but Lampl, who has visited the tiger, said he is doing well.

She said Frasier lives in an enclosure more advanced and secure than any required by the federal government, and she said the public has nothing to fear from the tiger.

“He’s a sweetheart,” she said.

Making a list

While no state agency tracks problems with exotic animals in Minnesota, few troubles have surfaced since the 2005 law went into effect, according to Kris Petrini, assistant director of Minnesota’s Board of Animal Health.

“It’s hard to know what people are doing, but the fact that we really haven’t had any major episodes lately – knock on wood – that’s one good thing,” said Petrini, whose agency is tasked with keeping a registry of people who own exotic animals.

Tammy Quist Thies, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in southern Minnesota, said she considers the law a success because it has reduced demand for exotic animals, particularly large ones like tigers and lions.

“The good news about the law is, if there are complaints, they (law enforcement agencies) will use the law for enforcement,” said Thies, adding, however, that if no one complains about a situation, officials “kind of overlook it.”

Under the 2005 law, anyone in Minnesota who owns an animal like a big cat or a primate is required to file papers with their local animal control authority. That information must then be passed on to the state Board of Animal Health.

The board’s registry of exotic animals lists about 21 owners, approximately two-thirds of whom hold USDA licenses that allow them to breed and sell animals, according to Petrini.

If there are any complaints about exotic animals, they are dealt with by sheriff’s departments or municipalities, according to Petrini, who suspects most local officials are glad to have a state law to fall back on.

“Before this law was enacted, they really didn’t have the tools, it had to be on a local level,” she said. “Now, there is a law in Minnesota that they can reference: you can’t have these animals,” said Petrini.

No skunks, raccoons

North Dakota regulates what it calls nontraditional livestock by requiring licenses and enforcing rules on how the animals are kept and cared for.

Almost any kind of animal can be owned, except skunks and raccoons, which are forbidden because of the risk of disease.

All other animals fall into three numbered categories, with categories two and three requiring licensing that provide rules on how animals are controlled and cared for.

Category two includes animals like deer and wolverines.

Category three includes big cats, bears and primates.

“If you wanted to have a bear, you can have a bear. But you have to have a nontraditional livestock license and there are very specific requirements for what type of facility you must keep it in,” said Beth Carlson, North Dakota’s deputy state veterinarian.

Animals like ferrets and non-venomous snakes are considered domestic and require no license.

“If you wanted to have a venomous snake, you’d have to have a category three license,” Carlson said.

“Basically, if people want to own something like that, they have to have the same kind of facility a zoo has to have in regard to security, a lockable facility,” she said.

“I think North Dakota has very good rules in this area,” Carlson added. “In a lot of states, you can just have a tiger in the back yard.”

When it comes to licensed animals, North Dakota conducts annual or biannual inspections of the facilities where the animals are kept.

“It’s not uncommon for an area of fence that needs repair, but in general we don’t have too many problems,” said Carlson.

Wandering wallaroo

An unsecured gate was exploited by Joe the wallaroo in his big escape three years ago from his home on the edge of Bismarck.

Joe’s owner, Corey Botner, said the wallaroo, a medium-sized member of the kangaroo family, took off hopping when he was spooked by a St. Bernard puppy Botner brought home.

Joe was on the lam for several days before Botner and a group of friends were able to round him up.

“I think he was pretty happy to be back,” said Botner, adding that his “mob” of wallaroos has grown by two.

He said young wallaroos require a large amount of care.

“You have to give a bottle every three hours, around the clock. They become very docile and attached to you. You are their parent,” said Botner, who described wallaroos as beautiful and unique.

“They’re kind of like a cat,” he said. “If they want to come see you they’ll come see you. If they don’t, they won’t.”

Botner said people should know what they’re getting into before buying an exotic like a wallaroo.

“It is a lot of work and a lot of money, but I think it’s rewarding.

“A lot of people that buy these already know the commitment,” Botner said. “They’re not going to give them crappy care because they cost thousands of dollars.”

Words of caution

Not every prospective pet owner does the necessary research before getting an animal, according to Paula Grimstad, executive director of the Red River Zoo in Fargo.

“They think it’s a great idea to be different, or that it would be cool to have an exotic pet,” said Grimstad. “They don’t think: What are they going to do with it later?”

Too often, she said, the answer to that question involves getting rid of the animal.

Sometimes people drop animals off at the zoo.

“We get a lot, especially during certain seasons,” said Grimstad.

“People will buy baby bunnies, ducklings and abandon them. That is just so sad,” said Grimstad, adding that most of the time the zoo can’t take the animals.

“I don’t think we should regulate it so people cannot do it (own exotic animals). But we need to regulate it enough that the animals are taken care of appropriately,” said Grimstad, warning that certain animals can be a challenge, even for professionals.

“We hand raised our wolves here at the zoo. These are still wild animals that we need to be very careful with,” she said. “Wild animals are just very unpredictable.”

Lampl echoed Grimstad’s sentiments.

“If you’re going to own exotic animals, you need to do the research,” she said.

“Primates, especially, are very intelligent,” she added. “They need to be interacted with, they need to be stimulated every day.”

She said rules require that her primates undergo psychiatric evaluations once a year, a task performed by her local veterinarian.

“He studies their behavior and looks for signs of aggression, boredom, anything that might indicate to him that they are stressed or unhappy,” said Lampl.

After a pause, she added: “Children should have that kind of testing every year.”


Minnesota law bans certain pets

A Minnesota law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2005, prohibits individuals from owning certain exotic animals, including bears and primates.

Ownership of any member of the cat family, with the exception of domestic cats, is also prohibited.

People who owned regulated animals prior to Jan. 1, 2005, may keep them, but must register them with their local animal control authority.

They must also keep and maintain their animals in accordance with U.S. Department of Agriculture rules.

A person who has a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources game farm license does not need to register native cougars, bobcats, lynx or black bears.

Also, a person who obtained a USDA license prior to law may breed or acquire new regulated animals and sell them outside of Minnesota or within Minnesota to other licensed breeders.


North Dakota bans only two animals

In North Dakota, ownership of skunks and raccoons is prohibited, but ownership of many other kinds of creatures is allowed.

For category one animals, those considered to be domestic such as ducks, geese, ferrets, hedgehogs and turkeys, no license is required.

Category two animals, those considered to be protected species or species that may pose health risks to humans, require a license. They include creatures like deer, waterfowl, shorebirds, wolverines, otters and prairie dogs.

With category three animals, those considered to pose special concerns, owners must obtain a license and they are subject to additional housing and care requirements. Category three animals include big cats, bears, wolves, venomous reptiles, primates and nondomestic sheep.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555