Biology professor Sheree Daniel is inviting 60 of her students over this weekend for an anatomy lesson at her house in East Texas, where they will dissect horses that she will feed to Cruizer, her 22-year-old African lion.
Daniel has had Cruizer since he was 10 weeks old. But keeping him hasn't been easy. She has spent thousands to house Cruizer and even had to fight the county sheriff when he tried to outlaw exotic pets like Cruizer. Daniel could be in for another fight next year, though, when the Humane Society of the United States plans to ask lawmakers to tighten rules on exotic pets statewide. While Daniel argues that as an animal breeder and professor, she is qualified to care for her lion, the animal rights organization said private ownership of exotic pets can be hazardous for the public and for the animals.
"It’s a real public safety issue,” said Jordan Crump, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States.
Since 2001, Texas law has required that people who own exotic animals like Cruizer — or other exotic animals like lions, bears and chimpanzees — register their animals with their municipal or county animal control offices. The law leaves it up to local governments to regulate exotic pet ownership or ban it outright. When the sheriff of Kaufman County, where Daniel lives, decided to ban exotic animals in 2007, she fought to keep Cruizer, and won. She said the sheriff allowed her and a few other long-time owners in the county to keep their animals.
“I said, ‘That’s bullshit. I’m going to fight you tooth and nail. He’s 16, and they don’t live to be 15 or 16 usually,’” she said. “Mine needs to live where he lives until he does die.”
Texas is one of 13 states that require registration in counties where exotic animals are allowed. But many states are moving toward banning private ownership of exotic animals — 21 states already have comprehensive bans, and another eight states ban most exotic animals as pets, said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of the animal advocacy group Born Free USA.
Crump said the average person doesn’t know how to adequately care for exotic animals and doesn’t house them in cages that protect them from the public. Last month, the Humane Society seized 11 animals — including two wolf hybrids, two cougars and macaque — from a roadside zoo in Mississippi after an undercover investigation revealed conditions there put animals and people at risk.
Crump, who helped rescue the animals and transport several of them to Texas animal shelters, said people who had lived in the neighborhood by the zoo had been afraid the animals would get out because the cages were not up to code.
“The owners said, ‘These animals are our pets,’ but the tigers had no names; there were no extensive medical records,” Crump said. “This is not appropriate.”
While exotic pet ownership is a problem nationally, Crump said, it's even more pronounced in Texas.
“Statistics show that there are more tigers held privately in Texas than are alive in the wild right now,” she said.
Exotic animal incidents in the past year have even put people at risk. Last year in Odessa, a 4-year-old boy was injured when he was mauled by a family member’s pet mountain lion. Also last year, in Zanesville, Ohio, a man released his 56 exotic animals from their cages before he shot himself. Schools were closed while authorities captured some animals and killed many others.
Some Texas counties — including Travis and Bexar counties — have banned owning exotic pets. But others, like Harris County, allow it. Harris County Veterinary Public Health is in charge of animal control there, but smaller counties that don’t have animal control departments rely on local sheriffs to monitor exotic pets.
“What we have is a patchwork of local laws,” said Nicole Paquette, the Humane Society's Texas senior state director. “People are county-shopping, and they’re moving into areas where it’s legal to own these animals.”
Daniel agreed that keeping exotic animals as pets isn’t for everyone — but she said she has the experience and the resources to take care of a large, aggressive animal. She is a biology professor at Trinity Valley Community College, has worked in a veterinary clinic for 20 years and has raised dogs for 35 years. She has spent thousands of dollars on Cruizer’s cage and upkeep.
“I’m a special case,” she said. “It’s not for the average person. It’s not even for the above-average person."
Daniel said that she’s already fought to keep Cruizer once, and that she’ll do it again.
“There’s no use in trying to take mine away,” she said. “Not everybody who has these animals is inexperienced or irresponsible.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Humane Society of the United States would seek to ban exotic pets in Texas. The organization is seeking to strengthen laws that regulate the ownership of such animals.