The topic of law for all but those who have dedicated their professions to its study, is often a perplexing thing. Most laws have a benevolent, all-encompassing purpose to maintain peace, order and the common good. The legal system, for example, protects us from each other as well as from the state interfering too intimately in our lives. What if through prejudice, fear and general misinformation, an unjust law was to disguise itself as a protective measure to ward off evil? Would anyone notice? Would anyone even care?
I live in the township of Laurentian Valley, a small rural community, tucked away between Ottawa to the South East and Algonquin Park to the North. Like so many communities in the Upper Ottawa Valley (or ‘the valley’ to which it is often referred), the pace of life is slow. Were it not for Canadian Forces Base Petawawa nearby, many of these communities would never have existed. The population is divided, one half consisting of military members with their lives constantly in flux, moving from place to place, rarely sitting still long enough to familiarize themselves with local politics. The other half is made up of the true ‘born and raised’ locals. Life has always been one way for them, the status quo, and that is how most of them want it to remain.
I am squarely in the middle of these groups, originally uprooted from Toronto to fulfill my duties in the army, now a proud homeowner and hopeful to be a permanent resident of ‘the valley’. There is one problem in this equation however; I have been a lifelong reptile lover and according to the laws in my township (and many like it), all reptiles are completely illegal to be kept as pets.
At the federal level, Canada has few standards for the private keeping of animals. Discounting the Species at Risk Act, provisions in the Criminal Code for animal cruelty, and several other acts mostly relating to wildlife, the Government of Canada has kept its hands off private citizens and their animals. It has instead delegated that responsibility to the provinces, some of which have in turn passed them down to the individual municipalities to decide which animals may be kept by citizens. Ontario has provincial legislation to ban pit bulls and regulates the keeping of native wildlife but not exotic pets, while Quebec, BC and some others regulate the keeping of certain exotics at the provincial level.
In Ontario, this leaves a very messy patchwork of laws and regulations that often range from complete prohibition of exotic animals on one side of a town line, to no regulation whatsoever on the other. Looking at the legal framework in the Upper Ottawa Valley, that is indeed what appears to be the case. Some townships have jumped to the same irrational and fearful conclusions as mine while others have not yet anticipated that their citizens may want to own an exotic, so they have not made any provisions for them in law.
As a new resident to my township and a reptile lover, I was surprised and shocked to learn that keeping even the smallest, most inoffensive of my favoured animals was against the law. I realized at that point that something had to be done to soften the attitudes of the township, so I set about my new mission – changing the laws. Those three simple words carry daunting and laborious implications, as formulating an argument that covers all the major points while converting the fearful and misinformed attitudes of some of the local decision makers is no easy task. With the knowledge that opinions would only change when confronted with well-referenced statistics and research to prove my point, I spent two years researching and writing a paper about the risks of owning a reptile compared to those of owning more commonplace pets.
Finding reputable captive reptile statistics is tantamount to finding a needle in a haystack in the middle of a wind storm! In Canada there is no concrete data studying what types of reptiles are kept, where they are most prevalent or even the percentage of households that own a reptile. When faced with so little data, it is difficult to establish a means by which to compare the risks of owning reptiles to the risks of owning other pets – difficult, but not impossible. After two years of intense study and writing, I finally finished my research paper and was satisfied enough at its completeness that I felt ready to present my case to the town council.
Exotic animal laws of all kinds have crept up around the municipalities of Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. Often applauded by the public, many go to extreme measures such as prohibiting all pythons and boas, lizards over one meter long, all arachnids and the list goes on. The creators of these laws have the best interest of their constituents at heart but unfortunately most are woefully unqualified to properly distinguish between the real and the perceived dangers of owning various reptiles. It is believed by many that once a type of animal is prohibited by law safety to the public is ensured and everyone can live happily. It takes an incident like the release of a cobra a few years ago in a boarding house in Toronto (which bans venomous snakes) to provide the wakeup call that outright animal bans are not the answer to public safety.
An important question that is seldom asked is why any animal should be completely prohibited? Naturally, a torrent of answers come flooding back crying out about dangers to the public, animal welfare and so on. Most are surprised to learn that throughout the UK, as well as in a variety of US states, the regulated keeping of dangerous exotics by members of the public is permitted by law. Provided that various safety regulations, facility inspections, record keeping and training requirements are met, a private keeper may pursue his or her hobby in peace. Keepers of dangerous exotics apply for licenses and are approved once it is established that they are knowledgeable and their animal husbandry is such that all risks are minimized. In Florida, there are also enclosure size and animal enrichment requirements for different species ranging from reptiles to tigers and chimpanzees.
The lack of comprehensive regulation that Ontario has chosen to date is arguably worse than blanket prohibitions. With the laws the way they are structured, the province gives owners of exotics enough rope to hang themselves with. The lack of licensing and regulatory systems over people who choose to own a dangerous exotic means that anyone, no matter how un-prepared, ignorant, unstable, or irresponsible can legally own whatever exotic they choose as long as their municipality doesn’t have a by-law against it. An Ontario private member’s bill proposing the strictest provincial animal control legislation in Canada following the mauling death of a man by a tiger in Thorold, Ontario is a perfect example of how one irresponsible keeper can galvanize a province. Ontario exotic owners were saved by the bell when the bill was shot down due to an early election, but if it had passed it would have effectively ended exotic animal ownership in Ontario, which would have had sweeping implications for reptile owners. If Ontario had a licensing system for dangerous exotics, that tragedy could have been prevented.
Back to the cobra in the boarding house, it could easily be argued that if there were a licensing system in place for dangerous exotics, people could still keep them illegally and they would be more easily accessible because of the all the legally kept animals, so more such incidents would take place. First of all, with properly enforced record keeping and micro chipping of dangerous exotics, the chances of one making its way to the black market is very small. Secondly, no amount of laws will eliminate a black market that by virtue of its very existence operates illegally. What a licensing system does is allows the responsible keepers a legal outlet for their passions while being able to focus the attention of law enforcement on the irresponsible keepers who are unable or unwilling to work for a license.
After my presentations (first to Laurentian Valley council, then to the town of Petawawa), people in the area were beginning to sit up and take notice and reptile owners began coming out of the woodwork. Support for changes in the laws began to emerge in the form of more and more attendees at town meetings, the formation of reptile-related community groups and hundreds of signatures on a petition (which is a significant thing in a small town).
There were a few loud and influential voices that would have loved to see the issue dropped. The mayors of both towns for example tried their best to push the matter down and delegitimize it, while the animal control officer of Laurentian Valley (who I’m told proposed, wrote and enforced the reptile ban to begin with) tried to use scare tactics on the council, playing into the well-established fear and misinformation that surrounds reptiles.
I would stake my life on the fact that without local reptile keepers coming together and showing support, the proposition to change the by-laws would have come to a dead stop. It was through the dedication and the physical presence of members of the reptile community showing up to the many dry and uninteresting town meetings that councilors began to realize that this was an issue that mattered to people. At meeting after meeting the councilors could have voted to stop pursuing the issue and keep the status quo. But we were there looking over their shoulders and time after time the issue remained at the forefront.
Exotic animal keepers as a whole, but especially the reptile community have been their own worst enemy in battles with legislation. Our community is quite fragmented, with most of its members showing little or no interest in involvement beyond attending the latest expo to buy a new morph so they may breed it for sale at next year’s expo. There is little knowledge about local, provincial or federal laws and even less impetus to change them. As a case in point, I am consistently surprised when I am told by members of the reptile community that: “Venomous snakes are illegal throughout Canada”. They are not – at least not everywhere.
Solidarity is the key to any movement for change. Sadly, it is lacking not only between reptile owners and other collectives of exotic animal keepers, but even within the reptile community itself. When faced with the often controversial issue of keeping venomous reptiles, owners of non-venomous reptiles will point a finger in criticism. Similarly, many of us are more than happy to throw the keepers of other exotics under the bus as long as our choices of pets are not affected by changing laws. What reptile keepers must remember is that just as they are decrying keepers of other exotics, there are forces at work trying to take away our reptiles!
The Canadian office of the World Society of the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has published a lengthy and well written document outlining why reptiles should be banned as pets throughout Canada, and urges readers to lobby their politicians to do so. This sentiment is echoed by other animal rights organizations such as HSUS and PETA. The irony that we, a group that clearly loves and cherishes animals, would fight against animal welfare organizations is not lost on me. However, when faced with well-funded, well organized and powerful groups like these, we must fight not just as individual keepers of non-venomous lizards, snakes and turtles, but as a broader force of all exotic animal keepers. We must stand united in the cause of responsible ownership of all exotic animals that is regulated when necessary but never banned outright. If we cry out for the ban of certain animals (so long as they are not the ones we keep) we will slowly whittle away the legitimacy of keeping exotics and eventually argue ourselves out of a hobby.
The proposals made to change the by-laws in the valley are moving along nicely. Through hard work and a community of reptile owners pulling together, it seems that change is on the horizon. We can only hope that responsible ownership and common sense will trump fear and misinformation in this fight. Battles like ours are small, but enough drops of water can fill a bucket. If exotic animal owners everywhere stand up for what they believe in and pull together to create change, the sky is the limit.
What can you do? Keep yourselves informed. Read up on your local by-laws, you might be surprised at what you find. Keep your eyes and ears open for newly proposed bills in parliament that regulates exotics and then weigh in with your MPs and MPPs. Lobby your politicians to adopt comprehensive licensing for dangerous exotics following the models laid out by the US and UK so that those animals are regulated and safe.
Above all, and by far the most important consideration is to be a responsible pet owner! Be professional. Care for your animals and the environment, never release them into the wild if you can no longer take care of them. Never keep illegal exotics. Choose your purchases carefully and don’t support retailers who deal in wild-caught, unhealthy, smuggled or endangered species. Do not keep a dangerous exotic unless you are very well prepared to do so. Have written emergency procedures and become an expert on your animals and the effects of a bite or attack. Do not expect the doctors in the emergency room to instinctively know how to deal with a venomous snakebite – they’ve probably never seen one. You might be the master of your own destiny and your own best medical advisor in that situation, so don’t leave it to someone else – know the information inside and out.
If we all followed these rules, there would be no reason for bans in the first place. I implore the readers not to be the people who slip through the cracks and wind up on the front page of a newspaper giving owners of exotics a bad name. If we are all good ambassadors to exotic animal ownership, eventually attitudes will change and we will move closer to a place where all responsible keepers may have their beloved pets in peace.