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‘It was wet. It was filthy. It was aggressive. I said, I’ll take the racoon. But keeping exotic pets is cruel’
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‘It was wet. It was filthy. It was aggressive. I said, I’ll take the racoon. But keeping exotic pets is cruel’

When Lindsay McKenna went out to buy a piece of furniture from a seller, the last thing she expected was to return with a wild animal.

“Something moved in the garage when I was in there helping the guy lift [the furniture],” she said. “It was a racoon in an incredibly small cage, it could hardly turn around. It was wet. It was filthy. It was skinny, aggressive.”

When the man kicked the cage, McKenna asked what was going on. “He said: ‘Oh, my stupid wife got it when it was eight weeks old for the kids – it is aggressive, we don’t know what to do with it’. So I said: ‘Right. I’ll take that with the furniture’.”

The incident, in late 2009, marked the beginning of Wildside Exotic Rescue – a centre near Ross-on-Wye that now houses animals from meerkats to mountain lions, mostly from UK homes.

Keeping such animals is not illegal – the Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) Act 1976 permits private ownership with a licence from the council. But now experts, charities and even some owners are raising concerns that the act is failing the very animals it is designed to protect.

“I‘ve come across people that have done their best by the animals within the restrictions of a domestic household. So I wouldn’t want to be slamming everyone who’s got an exotic animal as cruel. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the system is cruel to enable it.

“The UK government is saying we will permit you to have something as magnificent as a lion and tiger in less than the size of your lounge,” said McKenna, who holds a DWA licence.

A DWA licence lasts for two years and can be granted only if a number of requirements are met. The local authority must be satisfied that there are no safety concerns; the animal should be kept in suitable conditions with appropriate food, drink and exercise, infection and disease control, and the person requesting the licence must have insurance. An authorised vet must also inspect the premises where the animal is to be held to ensure they are suitable.

The need for regulation is evident: in the years before the act passed in 1976, it was easy to purchase exotic animals, with lion cubs available at Harrods. One such cat, named Christian, became a film star after the story of his life in London – and return to the wild – hit the big screen.

A capybara pictured with a wildlife rescue teamView image in fullscreen

Yet ownership of dangerous wild animals remains surprisingly widespread. According to recent statistics from the charity Born Free, there are more than 2,700 dangerous or wild animals kept in private settings in Great Britain, including more than 200 wildcats, 250 primates and 400 venomous snakes.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We keep this legislation under regular review to ensure it continues to keep the public safe and all animals judged to be especially dangerous are included on the list.”

Defra said it was a punishable offence for a dangerous wild animal to be kept in an inappropriate environment. The absence of reports of attacks suggests the act is working, it added.

Anna Judson, the president of the British Veterinary Association, thinks the DWA act is “inadequate”. “Wild and exotic animals have complex needs and, whilst many keepers are extremely competent and knowledgable, despite best intentions, these needs are sadly often not met. Some species have such specific requirements, it’s near impossible to fulfil these in domestic settings,” she said.

Judson added that there was an inconsistent approach to handing out licences, and their enforcement by local authorities. When the Guardian asked councils across Great Britain whether they queried would-be licencees about the provenance of their animals, and the reasons for keeping them, responses were mixed. Some said that such considerations were part of their application process, yet others stated that neither question was required by the DWA.

One council said: “The legislation covering this is extremely old and limited in its requirements.”

While individual councils have records of animals kept under the licence, the BVA is calling for a central register, and more regulations around the purchase and keeping of dangerous animals. This could resemble the set of minimum standards recently introduced in law on keeping primates as pets, with a stronger focus on animal welfare, including preventive health programmes with mandated veterinary visits, said Judson.

Lindsay McKenna and her rescued mountain lions.View image in fullscreen

Yet even this is not a perfect solution, as many vets won’t have seen unusual animals before. The DWA licence also only covers animals judged to be dangerous if they escape, which excludes many exotic, wild creatures, from some species of snake to meerkats.

Born Free argues that the only answer is to end the keeping of dangerous wild animals in the UK, along with a review of other exotic pets.

Some owners told the Guardian they also had concerns with the DWA.

Rebecca Fosset, who keeps camels near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, said: “Where I think the act falls down is that [it is about] the premises, not the person keeping the camel.”

She disagrees with a ban on all exotic pets. “Camels have been domesticated longer than horses.… What could be nicer for a camel than living in a place where it’s got plenty to eat and plenty to drink and a roof over its head?”

However, Thomas Chipperfield, often described as Britain’s last lion tamer, has no plans to give up his two lions and tiger..

“I’m still able to look after them and I’m able to provide them with a home that meets their rare needs, according to our vets,” he says, noting there is no shortage of zoo vets, and that the purpose of inspections is to ensure animal welfare is “satisfactory” rather than just meeting a bare minimum standard.

Chipperfield added that both his lions were about 14 years old – meaning they have outlived most wild males. “That’s in no small part down to the care that we’re able to give them in terms of a high quality of life,” he said.

“It is the right of anyone in a free society to engage in their passions, which includes animal keeping,” he added. “It would be illiberal for the state to arbitrarily or ideologically oppose this without consideration for the fact that keepers can and do look after their animals well.”

Source: theguardian.com