SWAT teams for wild animals?|jon_downes|jon@cfz.org.uk|05/18/05 at 14:38:35|jon_downes|xx|0||SWAT teams for wild animals?

Idea is to sedate, not kill, beasts on the loose

Miguel Llanos
May 16, 2005

When California game wardens killed a Bengal tiger in a Los Angeles suburb in February, Alan Schulman mourned the death of another cat whose dwindling numbers have landed it on the endangered species list. Then the noted veterinarian of 25 years launched a campaign to change a state wildlife policy that he calls "shoot first and ask questions later."

"It really did indicate that there are many better ways that the situation of exotic and endangered animals should be handled," he says.

Schulman wants microchip ID tags for exotic pets and specialized SWAT teams that would deploy to sedate not kill wild animals seen as threats to humans.

"With more and more people hiking in the hills, with more and more people encroaching in wild habitat," there will be more contact, Schulman says. "So the old way of doing things, which is just, 'Let's kill 'em,' doesn't fly anymore."

And how California addresses the problem could serve as a model for the rest of the nation, he says.

Owners allegedly covered up escape
The current debate was sparked by the escape of a Bengal tiger from an exotic animal sanctuary in Moorpark, Calif., last January. The owners never reported the cat missing and it roamed the area for nearly three weeks before it was first spotted.

Trackers spent eight days setting traps with goat and chicken meat and using infrared equipment at night. During that time, the cat roamed the hills, becoming hungrier and disoriented, making it more dangerous.

Although no people were in immediate danger when the tiger was shot and killed, the cat was finally cornered in brush a few hundred yards from play fields and homes.

The California Department of Fish and Game stands by the wardens' actions, saying that trying to sedate the 600-pound tiger would have taken too long. Sedation is sometimes used, the department notes, but regulations also exist that allow killing an animal if there's an "imminent threat to public safety."

But the two sides have agreed to review guidelines to see if animals' lives can be saved in the future.

Schulman credits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose pets he has treated for 13 years, with bringing the two sides together. He says he called the governor the day the tiger was killed to say he was about to go on television to criticize how the state handled the situation.

"He was in absolute agreement" against killing an animal needlessly, Schulman says, and consultations with the administration began soon after.

The Department of Fish and Game says it will sit down with Schulman and other noted veterinarians in Sacramento, the state capital, as early as this month.

The goal, says department spokesman Mike Wintemute, is "to help develop new or updated guidelines on how we deal with exotic animals."

"Perhaps there are things we could have done better," he says of the tiger incident, "so we're bringing in different perspectives on how to handle situations like this."

Escapes, attacks on the rise
For Schulman, the heart of the issue is that many exotic animals, especially large ones, are facing extinction as humans expand into their habitats.

Bengal tigers are already an endangered species in their native South Asia. Worldwide, around 7,000 tigers are estimated to remain in the wild.

The International Animal Welfare Fund, which tracks escapes and attacks on humans by dangerous animals like tigers, bears and large primates, says such incidents in the United States numbered in the single digits most years during the 1990s. But the number jumped to 31 in 2000, then 99 in 2003 and 199 in 2004.

The animal welfare group is also lobbying for laws to ban private ownership of exotic animals. Arkansas last month became the 23rd state to do so and a 2004 U.S. law bans the trade in big cats across state lines.

Calling in the SWAT team
When wild animals do get loose, Schulman says they should be taken alive if possible. That's where the SWAT idea comes in.

"We would literally set up a SWAT team that would certainly include myself, other big cat experts and the Department of Fish and Game," Schulman says.

While California's Department of Fish and Game says it takes several minutes to put down a large wild animal, Schulman says that "if you're trained and know what you're doing" it can be done in 30 seconds.

"Unless there's an imminent threat to human life," he says, "then every attempt to safely, humanely tranquilize the animal should be taken."

Wintemute's "gut reaction" to the SWAT idea is that it might not make financial sense to "ramp up resources" for the rare incident of an escaped exotic animal. "We're willing to look at that proposal," he adds, but California has budget troubles and "we're not flush with cash."

Prevention focus
Schulman and Wintemute agree that preventing such situations should be a priority. One idea is to require microchip tagging so that if an exotic pet gets loose, officials will have a record of the owner.

The state already has some experience with microchips, having worked with Sea World in San Diego to tag sea bass released into the ocean.

Schulman says such tags could be a "really good first step" with exotic animals, but then asks: "Where do you draw the line? Permits for anything more exotic than a dog or cat? I don't know where that line is."

There's also agreement on holding owners responsible for any problems posed by their exotic pets. Looking at just tigers, the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates more than 10,000 are kept as pets in the United States, either in homes or in the 3,000 sanctuaries authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The owners of the Bengal tiger killed near Los Angeles were arrested, accused of misleading officials and "destroying tiger prints in an effort to obstruct and hinder the federal tracking efforts," according to the U.S. Justice Department. The charges carry a penalty of up to 60 years in prison.

Wintemute says there's talk of raising the state fees that exotic animal owners now pay, $30 for a permit and $100 a year for two inspections. The idea would be to use the extra revenue to better monitor those animals.

Schulman is all in favor of that idea. And he would go even further in cases where owners are negligent and their animals pose a danger or escape.

"My feeling is to treat them like drug runners," he says of such owners. "Take their property, have them pay the expenses of tracking the animal and then putting it in a sanctuary."

"California has the opportunity to set a precedent for the way these cases are dealt with across the states," he says.