Python-linked deaths raise questions over exotic animal laws

The deaths of two young New Brunswick brothers believed to have been killed by a python have renewed focus on the patchwork of regulations governing exotic pets in Canada.

Humane societies decry patchwork of regulations across the provinces

The African rock python — the kind of giant snake the RCMP identified as apparently responsible for the deaths of Noah Barthe, 4½, and Connor Barthe, 6 — is not permitted in New Brunswick unless an exemption to the provincial ban has been granted. (iStock)

The deaths of two young New Brunswick brothers, believed to have been killed by a python, have renewed the focus on the patchwork of regulations governing exotic pets in Canada.

In the process, animal welfare groups and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies are again calling for stronger provincial laws to limit or ban the import and sale of exotic species.

In this particular case, the African rock python — the kind of giant snake the RCMP identified as responsible for the deaths of Noah Barthe, 4½, and Connor Barthe, 6 — is not permitted in New Brunswick unless an exemption to an existing provincial ban has been granted.

On Tuesday, the director of communications for N.B.'s Department of Natural Resources said that the only exceptions granted would be for accredited zoos, not for someone to keep an illegal exotic animal as a pet.

A tiger watches activity at Norman Buwalda's residence in Southwold, Ont., on Jan.11, 2010, one day after Buwalda went into a tiger's cage on his property to feed the animal and was attacked and killed. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Across Canada, regulations governing exotic pets vary widely, and animal welfare groups, which have long argued for stronger regulations, are again lamenting the current legal state of affairs.

"It's a bit of a mess," says Rob Laidlaw, the executive director of Zoocheck Canada.

"There's a lot of exotics that come in, many of them the regular pet trade stock, that are for all intents and purposes completely unregulated."

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has opposed the trade or keeping of exotic animals as pets, and sees a ban on those practices as the ideal legal scenario right across the country, says CEO Barbara Cartwright.

In Ontario, for example, she says, "it's easier for you to own a tiger than it is to have a raccoon in your house because of the way the laws are set up."

Ontario laws are largely designed for native species, often because of concerns around such things as rabies, she said. "We don't have the same laws for non-native species."

Those kinds of legal complexities need to be dealt with and simplified, she says.

Tarantulas and tigers

The concerns raised following the New Brunswick deaths come eight months after another exotic animal garnered headlines.

The saga of Darwin, the young monkey found wandering outside a Toronto Ikea store, led to calls by animal protection groups for stronger laws on exotic pets.

There is a thriving exotic animal trade in Canada — involving everything from tarantulas to tigers and the giant constricting snakes, Laidlaw says. But there is no federal law controlling it.

Darwin, the young monkey found wandering in an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, drinks from a baby bottle at his former owner's home. (YouTube)

Permits aren't required for importing many species unless they are registered within the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he says.

Most issues concerning wildlife in captivity are handled at the provincial level or downloaded by the provinces to municipal governments, which can develop their own lists of prohibited animals.

"A good example is here in Ontario," says Laidlaw.

"We have nothing controlling exotics on a provincial level so each individual municipality, if they're experiencing a problem, or if they have foresight and want to deal with it before it occurs, they pass exotic animal bylaws. Or they include an exotic animal bylaw control component in their animal control bylaw, and it really is a bit of a mess."

Laidlaw points to British Columbia as an example of a jurisdiction that has done "something a bit more proactive" in recent years, although he notes that the impetus for B.C.'s 2009 Controlled Alien Species Regulation came after a woman was killed by her boyfriend's pet tiger.

The B.C. law places strict limits on owners of exotic animals and bars creatures such as big cats, venomous snakes, large reptiles and primates from being imported to the province.

Only in exceptional circumstances

Laidlaw looks to the current situation in New Brunswick, and sees a straightforward legal response.

"The keeping of giant constricting snakes by private individuals except in very exceptional circumstances should not be allowed," he says.

A Winnipeg resident was shocked to find a ball python in a dumpster behind an apartment building on May 8, 2013. (City of Winnipeg/Canadian Press)

"I think if you could prove that there's a legitimate conservation component to whatever work is being done with the snakes, or some other type of legitimate purpose beyond personal amusement, then as long as there are very strict criteria in terms of welfare, safety and this grander purpose, then that I think would be palatable to most people.

"But the guy down the street who wants to have a giant snake to impress his friends, or the guy who just wants a cool hobby or that type of thing, they shouldn’t be allowed to purchase these animals."

Laidlaw feels such regulation would be handled best at the provincial level right now. Cartwright, at the Federation of Humane Societies, favours a provincial or local response.

"It would be difficult for it to be federal," says Cartwright. "It's best left at the bylaw or provincial level because you need someone to go in and be enforcing that law."

Living in the stone age

While Canada doesn't have national laws for exotic pet ownership, other countries have had these kinds of regulations for decades. Britain, for instance, passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976.

Laidlaw would like to see Canada have some sort of federal involvement.

"We're still living in the stone age when it comes to animals. I think that we should follow the lead of some other jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, and have some type of commission or some type of federal department or even a ministry that deals with animal issues."

But he's not optimistic something like that will happen any time soon.

"Whether or not there's the appetite for that or the motivation to ever get something like that, I don't know. I expect if there is it would be quite a ways off."

'No excuse'

For his part, Laidlaw doesn't want to see what happened in New Brunswick labelled as an "accident."

"I think the real thing for people to remember is that that snake should never have been there in the first place. There is no excuse for keeping that kind of an animal there especially when the law prohibited it. I think people have to remember that there are some animals that just don't make good pets."

He sees a wide range of issues around the exotic pet trade, ranging from public safety to ecological concerns and the welfare of these wild animals being kept far from their natural surroundings.

"There are estimates that place the number that die within the first 24 months of captivity, assuming they survive their way to the consumer, at around 90 per cent. But even if they survive, the quality of life that many of these animals experience is just abominable," says Laidlaw.

Some are put in tiny aquariums or terrariums, and just pulled out every now and then for an owner's amusement.

"If you can't satisfy the needs of animals," says Laidlaw, "I think you really have to question whether or not people should be having them."

With files from Ian Monroe