Dan­ger nearby for keep­ers at wild cat sanc­tu­ar­ies

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY GOSIA WOZNIACKA

PORT­LAND, ORE. Over the past few decades, as an ex­otic pet trade boomed and Amer­i­cans bought cute tiger cubs and baby mon­keys, sanc­tu­ar­ies sprang up across the na­tion to take care of the an­i­mals that were aban­doned when they reached adult-size or were no longer wanted.

The growth in both the num­ber of wild cats as pets and the sanc­tu­ar­ies that res­cued them has led to at­tacks.

Since 1990, more than 20 peo­ple have been killed by cap­tive big wild cats at sanc­tu­ar­ies, zoos and pri­vate res­i­dences, more than 200 peo­ple have been mauled, and 200-plus wild cats have es­caped, ac­cord­ing to one of the na­tion’s largest wild cat sanc­tu­ar­ies.

The lat­est death is head keeper Re­nee Radzi­won-Chap­man, 36, who was killed by a cougar at an Oregon sanc­tu­ary last week.

Those who have stud­ied the is­sue say that be­cause sanc­tu­ar­ies are largely un­reg­u­lated and any­one can open one, there are no uni­form safety pro­to­cols. And over­con­fi­dence or hu­man er­ror can lead to tragic con­se­quences even among the most ex­pe­ri­enced of care­tak­ers.

“It’s a risky busi­ness when you’re deal­ing with dan­ger­ous wild an­i­mals. You can’t leave any room for er­ror,” said Ver­non Weir, di­rec­tor of the Ne­vad­abased Amer­i­can Sanc­tu­ary As­so­ci­a­tion which cer­ti­fies sanc­tu­ar­ies.

For decades, ex­otic an­i­mals have been im­ported into the U.S. and openly bred for the pet trade. De­spite new laws that limit the trade in some states, peo­ple can eas­ily buy an African ro­dent, a chim­panzee, or a baby leop­ard at a flea mar­ket or over the In­ter­net.

The U.S. ex­otic pet trade is es­ti­mated to be a multi­bil­lion- dol­lar in­dus­try. Hun­dreds of sanc­tu­ar­ies have opened through­out the U.S.

About 80 sanc­tu­ar­ies cur­rently house big cats, the In­ter­na­tional Fund for An­i­mal Wel­fare says. Only a dozen of them are cer­ti­fied or ver­i­fied by two cer­ti­fy­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Amer­i­can Sanc­tu­ary As­so­ci­a­tion and the Global Fed­er­a­tion of An­i­mal Sanc­tu­ar­ies.

There’s lit­tle gov­ern­men­tal over­sight. The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, which en­forces the fed­eral An­i­mal Wel­fare Act, li­censes fa­cil­i­ties that ex­hibit an­i­mals — whether do­mes­tic or wild — or do re­search. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice tracks en­dan­gered species when they are bought and sold across state or U.S. bor­ders and is­sues per­mits to fa­cil­i­ties mov­ing an­i­mals across state lines.

But nei­ther agency keeps a tally on fa­cil­i­ties or the to­tal num­ber of wild an­i­mals that are housed.

And no one sets rules for how sanc­tu­ar­ies op­er­ate.

As a re­sult, safety pro­ce­dures meant to pro­tect staff and an­i­mals vary. Most sanc­tu­ar­ies de­velop their own pro­to­cols. The two cer­ti­fy­ing as­so­ci­a­tions re­quire safety stan­dards, but in most cases don’t de­fine spe­cific rules.

Wild­Cat Haven, the Sher­wood, Ore., sanc­tu­ary where the head keeper was killed Nov. 9, was “ver­i­fied” by the Global Fed­er­a­tion of An­i­mal Sanc­tu­ar­ies. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion means the sanc­tu­ary sat­is­fied 60 dif­fer­ent stan­dards, in­clud­ing safety.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­om­mends “re­dun­dancy” when it comes to safety, its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Patty Finch said, mean­ing two lock­out doors or two staff mem­bers present. “It won’t elim­i­nate the risk fac­tor, but can cer­tainly re­duce it,” Ms. Finch said.

Still, she said, risk is in­her­ent in the job. “You can have the best pro­to­cols in the world and some­thing can still go wrong.”

Wild­Cat Haven has good safety rules in place, Ms. Finch said.

Its safety man­ual spec­i­fies that a staff mem­ber can en­ter the main en­clo­sure to clean or make re­pairs only af­ter the an­i­mals are locked away in a smaller cage. Two peo­ple must be present when an­i­mals are locked up. And a care­taker can’t be alone with an an­i­mal in the same space.

Sanc­tu­ary of­fi­cials said Ms. Radzi­won-Chap­man ap­par­ently broke those rules: She worked alone, locked only one of three cougars in the smaller cage, and went into the main en­clo­sure with the other two cougars.

The woman’s fam­ily said they don’t be­lieve the wife and new mother broke any rules, and she had ex­pressed con­cerns about work­ing alone just days be­fore the at­tack.

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