Straight Talk
SIMON KENT - Exotic pet laws a mess in Ontario

Darwin's mom, Yasmin Nakhuda

Credits: Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

SIMON KENT | QMI AGENCY

It's a jungle out there.

From stylishly-clad monkeys roaming Ikea car parks in North York to the one-metre-long alligator that gave Brampton residents a snappy wake up-call in May, it seems keeping exotic animals as pets is the new normal.

So cats, dogs, budgies, tropical fish and mice move over. You are just so passé. Hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets can take a hike, too.

The world now wants to have something a little more bizarre in the backyard and it is left to people like Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck Canada to pick up the pieces when the shock of the new wears off.

His wildlife protection charity was established in 1984 to promote and guard the interests of wild animals.

While its primary focus has traditionally been wildlife in zoo captivity, Zoocheck has also been involved in numerous campaigns to help wildlife in its natural state, including polar bears in the Arctic, elephants in Africa and wild horses in the Canadian west.

Now it is being called in a bit closer to home to help in cases like Darwin, the roaming pet monkey, something Laidlaw says is not as rare as it seems.

The reason is simple.

"There are no binding federal laws in Canada on which exotic animals can be deemed pets and which cannot - it is a complete mess that varies from province to province.

"British Columbia is one of the few provinces with a broad ban on specific species but for the rest of the country it is open slather.

"You would be as surprised as I have been to learn of some of the animals some people feel like taking in and trying to tame as pets."

Really? Then surprise us Rob.

"Just off the top of my head, I have seen big cats kept in a car, tigers in chicken wire cages, cougars being leash walked and a house full of reptiles.

"All of this in Ontario. There have also been venomous snakes in abundance and while we haven't seen a domesticated hippo yet, I know it will only be some time until I'm called out to help one."

The City of Toronto's list of prohibited pets includes primates, elephants, hybrid wolf-dogs and sloths. To name just a few of the species deemed by city fathers (and presumably mothers) to be beyond the pale of personal ownership.

Although Rob Laidlaw mentions no hippo sightings in Ontario, there is a precedent for these rather large mammals being kept as personal friends.

Early last century, owning exotic pets was nothing new and even encouraged. It's just that they were the exclusive preserve of the rich, the powerful and the well travelled rather than shoppers in suburban bulk stores.

Some of the creatures available to virtually anyone with the wherewithal to purchase them included everything from hamsters, ferrets and tarantulas to tropical fish, ant eaters, lemurs, sugar gliders, peacocks, parrots, snakes, gerbils, capybaras and lizards before finishing at cougars, tigers, lions, leopards and the humble wombat.

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge is a perfect example (of an owner of exotic pets, not a wombat). He had a pygmy hippopotamus called Billy as a pet. Coolidge also boasted a wallaby, lion cubs, a raccoon and an assortment of birds at various times of his White House tenure.

Although Ontario has a range of conflicting municipal requirements regarding the keeping of exotic pets, some districts are trying to tackle the problem.

Last month, politicians in the southwestern Ontario community of Essex decided to defer the introduction of a planned exotic pet bylaw to tweak the wording.

The town agrees a bylaw is needed to protect residents from dangerous animals like venomous snakes and large zoo animals. But the question needs to be decided if there should be a downright ban or some kind of registration system.

Rob Laidlaw says he will be happy either way because clarity before the law would make everyone's job easier.

"Nobody is suggesting you put a stick insect on the same list of dangerous exotic animals as a killer python, but you have to start somewhere if it means getting consistent and enforceable bylaws," he says. "If you don't, you just get more legal tangles."

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