One person's lizard is another person's cat
Reptiles are pets, too. At least, that's what Luke Halstead was trying to convince Laurentian Valley Township councillors of at their regular meeting last night.
As a reptiles and exotics manager at a private zoo for the past two years, and having kept similar animals for more than a decade, Halstead is more than familiar with issues surrounding exotic pet ownership, and came equipped with a lengthy written report - the culmination, he says, of more than two years of research - and a Power Point presentation to help him deliver his case to council.
As it stands, Laurentian Valley has a ban on virtually all pets that don't fall into traditional furry pet categories, "dogs, cats and pet rabbits," as Halstead says. But he would like to see the township amend its bylaws to adopt a more nuanced approach, which would, as a start, differentiate between different species and between animals that are exotic and those that are both exotic and dangerous.
"Distinctions must be made between harmless and dangerous exotics," he says, "which they aren't in the bylaw. Right now, according to the bylaw, a king cobra is just as illegal as a leopard gecko: the same fine for each, and they're considered in the same way."
Halstead went on to say that laws that don't make any distinction between these differences are simply going to be ignored.
"When people see that in a law, they will automatically disregard it in their own mind. They're going to keep their leopard gecko. People feel that these laws are prejudicial, and they're not followed. And when you're giving the impression that a leopard gecko is the same as a king cobra, and a person knows they're going to be hit with exactly the same fine, then why not just keep the king cobra, if that's what they want to do. They know they're going to be doing something illegal anyway."
As the laws stand now, he says, they are completely unenforceable, and people are actively ignoring them already.
"They're unenforceable, because people are going to keep these animals anyway. In fact, they are here, and we can prove they're here. If you go in to any of the regular pet shops, or if you frequent them like I do, in Pembroke or Petawawa, a staple of their income comes from the sale of reptile related and exotic animal related equipment."
A large portion of Halstead's presentation dealt also with issues of safety, presenting statistics surrounding injuries as a result of dog attacks, which are responsible for one or two fatalities every year in Canada.
Most reptiles and other exotics, he says, are as harmless as guinea pigs or rabbits, and those that do pose more of a threat would be better dealt with using specific licensing regulations and inspections rather than blanket bans.
"The current challenge is how to balance public safety with maximum allowable freedom, because right now the bylaws are quite slanted, with a complete prohibition of all reptiles and amphibians, all arachnids, even what would normally be considered to be harmless family pets."
Despite his vehemence that most exotic reptiles can make perfectly safe and benevolent pets, Halstead did acknowledge the potential for some ecological concerns to be raised, particularly when certain species of pets are abandoned in the wild once they become too big to be properly cared for in homes.
"Most reptiles, most pet store exotics, especially ectotherms, which are animals that derive heat from the outside, are not going to be able to survive and propagate in a Canadian winter. Most of them just can't. There are a couple of exceptions, one big one being the red-eared slider turtle and that genus, and the Mississippi map turtles, which are fairly common pet turtles.
"I think it would be prudent if the bylaw were to be changed to restrict the sale of turtles, only because you can't trust the commercial pet industry to arm all of the people that are going to be buying animals off them with the knowledge and saying 'no, don't release these into the wild, and don't buy your little baby turtle because it's going to get big in five years and you're not going to be able to keep it' and then people are going to release them into the wild."
At the conclusion of the presentation, council thanked Halstead for the information, although at the end of the meeting Mayor Jack Wilson expressed interest in simply filing it away as information. Other council members, particularly Councillor Debbie Robinson, felt as though it would be worth discussing at the committee level. It has been passed on to the committee of corporate services to be examined at its next meeting.
Ryan Paulsen is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist. Follow him on Twitter @PRyanPaulsen.