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No monkeying around with exotic pets

| Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

Pennsylvania doesn't monkey around when it comes to exotic pet regulations.

The state is one of 13 that requires a permit to own exotic animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves and wild cats, according to Born Free USA , a nonprofit animal advocacy group.

Owners of nontraditional animals, particularly monkeys, have come under fire since a Connecticut woman's pet chimpanzee mauled her neighbor Feb. 16.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would ban the transportation of primates across state lines to be sold as pets. The Senate is considering the bill.

In April, the Pennsylvania Game Commission , which issues permits for owning exotic mammals, outlawed personal ownership of primates. Zoos, menageries and circuses are exempt.

But Stefanie Sibert, 26, a non-traditional pet owner from Eighty-Four in Washington County, is defending her reptiles.

Sibert owns a Dumeril's boa that will grow to be about 6 feet long, she said. Her lizards, two bearded dragons and a Savannah monitor, can grow to be 2 feet long. She also owns a hognose snake and mud turtle, she said.

Some of her friends are "freaked out" by the snakes, but her pets aren't dangerous, she said.

"Once you own them for a while, you get used to their body language," Sibert said. "You can tell if they are upset. They give off warning signs."

The state doesn't require a permit to own snakes, lizards, alligators or crocodiles, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission , which regulates hunting and trapping of native reptiles. But some local veterinarians and animal handlers feel the state should require permits for such animals.

Veterinarian Mike Hutchinson, owner of Animal General in Cranberry, treats exotic animals, including reptiles. He said many people don't know what they're getting into.

"At least (be required to) get a permit, which would mean you go through basic education on the care of the animal," he said. "That would be the most important thing."

Bill Schrier, manager of Oddball Pets and Aquariums in Baldwin, said he sells smaller reptiles such as Solomon Island boas and poison dart frogs that aren't aggressive.

So if you have friends over, he said, it's not like the animals have to be locked up.

"A lot of the stuff we carry, it is stuff that can be handled," he said.

But people often don't know what to do with snakes or other reptiles as they grow, Hutchinson said. He suggested consulting a vet before purchasing a non-traditional pet.

"Most people that talk to me, when they are done, they decide not to get one," Hutchinson said. "Too many times, it's an impulse buy."

Primates 'make horrible pets'

Local zoo and exotic animal keepers endorse strict regulations that prohibit owning a primate.

"They make horrible pets," said Karen Vacco, lead keeper of primates at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. "Imagine having a 2-year-old child that never grows up, that's never been potty trained."

Nine states have no laws regulating ownership of exotic animals, according to Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group. Connecticut, where a chimp mauled a woman last week, has a partial ban on private ownership. For instance, the state allows primates but not wolves.

"Primates are very social," Vacco said. Even though you bring them in and make them part of the family, we are not the same species, so, socially, we are really inadequate."

Tom Guiher, owner of Animal Treasures animal parks in Donegal and New Castle, said there is a world of difference between being a licensed exhibitor and an individual owning an exotic pet.

"There is a level of expertise needed to take care of their daily requirements," Guiher said. "A monkey is not a pet. It requires an awful lot of attention and discipline, and that's not something that an average homeowner is capable of doing."

Additional Information:

Pa.'s exotic rules

The Pennsylvania Game Commission 's definition of exotic animals includes -- but isn't limited to -- bears, coyotes, wolves and wild cats. To obtain a permit to own one, a person much provide proof of two years' experience handling that animal and documentation that owning it is legal in their municipality.

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