December 12, 2012

GEORGE SMITH: Don't give puppies or kittens as gifts; no limas or wallabies, either

George Smith

Please don't give animals as Christmas gifts: no dogs, no cats, no parakeets and definitely no wallabies.

Pets are major responsibilities, can be expensive and should not be foisted on anyone who is unprepared and unwilling to accept all that responsibility and expense.

Exotic animals don't belong in captivity at all and have become a major nuisance throughout the state, as well as a threat to Maine's native wildlife and the habitat they depend upon.

"You can take the snake." That's the first thing I heard at a September meeting of the Wildlife Technical Committee of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. And then Derek Small took a small scorpion out of a container!

It turned out to be a confiscated creature on its way to Avian Haven, a Maine animal rehabilitation facility. Small is associated with The W.I.L.D. Center & Zoological Park of New England, located in Rochester, N.H., and a member of Maine's Wildlife Technical Committee.

Four key people at DIF&W are spending a lot of time on exotic animal issues, permitting and regulation. And sportsmen are paying for that work. The small amount of money that the agency makes from permits doesn't come close to paying for this work.

This may be a hot topic in the 2013 legislative session. Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine is working on a bill to raise fees, sort out the confusing laws governing the possession of exotic animals in Maine and create a list of prohibited animals.

Did you hear the story about the lima monkey (really a lemur) that got shot during a warden visit?

How about the guy from Florida who is one of several individuals trying to start exotic animal businesses in Maine to raise and sell animals? This guy's list includes Burmese pythons.

DIF&W doesn't really know how many exotic animals are in Maine, who has them, or where they are. Many Mainers don't even realize they need a permit to possess these animals.

Jim Connolly is DIF&W's Wildlife Division director. "Jim is getting daily requests," Erskine told members of the Wildlife Technical Committee, a group created to advise the agency on these issues.

"I have a basic concern: Should the department be considering any request from anywhere in the world just because somebody wants to have something?" asked Connolly. Obviously not, but today, the agency is required to do so.

You may have heard the story about the Lincoln wallaby. After working on the issue for more than a month, officials at Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife decided to allow Michelle Charette and her family of Island Falls to keep their wallaby, with severe restrictions.

Charette ran afoul of the law by accepting the gift of the wallaby, an animal that is actually any of about 30 species of macropod, principally found in Australia. It can be vicious, often disemboweling its enemies. Charette might have gotten away with her wallaby, except she took it to her son's baseball game. Someone at the game contacted the Maine Warden Service.

At the September meeting, Connolly brought up red-eared sliders, an exotic turtle that was allowed because we thought they were not a threat. "And then oops! They are now established in the wild in Maine," he said. "We don't always understand the consequences and dangers. We don't even track them, because they're on the allowed list."

Game wardens also are spending a lot of time enforcing exotic animal laws and confiscating illegally possessed animals. Warden Phil Dugas, a member of the Wildlife Technical Committee, distributed a photo of three-toed box turtles that wardens were confiscating that night.

"What do you expect us do to?" he asked, after passing around a photo of the turtles and asking the experts to identify them. No member of the committee could do it. Dugas noted that wardens need a lot of education if they are going to be able to identify these species.

Dugas, a guy with a very dry wit, pointed to the scorpion on the table and said, "I could have handled that scorpion. A can of Raid."

"I don't think we should be in the rescue business," he noted, making the point that wardens can't identify the animals and don't know how to safely handle them -- especially if they are required to transport the animals alive to another location.

Dugas also said that wardens need snake sticks. "You can get these snakes delivered to your door. The Asian cobra is cheap," he said.

Yikes!

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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