Police seizure of dozens of exotic animals raises oversight questions

·6 min read

May 27—A criminal investigation into potential negligent and abusive treatment of more than 300 animals seized by Norman police last month has highlighted the lack of state and federal oversight for private owners of exotic wild animals.

Police are continuing to investigate after seizing 354 animals of more than 80 different species from a property on East Rock Creek Road April 30. Police spokesperson Sarah Jensen said the Norman Police Department is considering criminal charges for the two men who owned the property, and that the city is seeking $100,000 to help pay for the exorbitant veterinary and rehousing costs for so many exotic animals.

"This is a case that is so unique just due to the different types and sheer numbers of animals involved," Jensen said.

While Norman police continue to determine the extent of mistreatment experienced by the animals — which include such exotic creatures as 17 lemurs, 12 camels, five kangaroos and an assortment of birds, reptiles, cattle and more — questions also remain as to how the property owners were able to maintain so many exotic creatures with minimal regulatory oversight.

Oklahoma is ranked as one of the worst states for adequate regulations on the keeping of wild animals, according to the Humane Society of the United States. While state licensing exists for the keeping and breeding of native Oklahoma wildlife, there is no state regulatory authority for exotic animals.

Instead, the United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for licensing and overseeing any kind of exotic animals owned by exhibitors, like private zoos or other showcases of tigers, primates and other non-native species. But the USDA's regulatory authority does not extend to animals owned simply as pets or for personal use.

"If you're a private owner and you're not exhibiting your animals to the public, not only is the state of Oklahoma not going to be looking in on what you're doing or where you live with your lions and tigers and bears, neither is the federal government," said Cynthia Armstrong, Oklahoma state director for the Humane Society.

The Rock Creek seizure

While the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park owned by Joseph "Exotic" Maldonado might be the best-known example of Oklahoma's questionable oversight for exotic animals, Armstrong said there are numerous others, like the recent Rock Creek case.

The situation came to Norman Animal Welfare's attention on April 29, when Jensen said an animal welfare officer observed what appeared to be malnourished horses eating bark off trees at a property known to house a large number of animals.

The city had been working with the property's owners, Aaron Stachmus and Bryson Anglin, for more than a year to relocate the animals outside of Norman city limits due to city ordinances outlawing the ownership of some of the exotic animals.

While the animals appeared to be in an adequate situation initially, Jensen said it was apparent that those conditions had declined. After obtaining a search warrant, Norman police found a total of 354 domestic and exotic animals that appeared malnourished and neglected.

"There was evidence that they were deprived of the necessary food, water and veterinary care that they needed to have the quality of life they deserve," Jensen said.

It took three days for law enforcement officials from Norman, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Oklahoma State Wildlife Department, EMSA and more organizations to remove the animals from the property, and it was a week before Anglin and Stachmus relinquished possession of the animals to the city.

Several of the animals remain in the custody of Norman Animal Welfare, but the majority are being taken care of by nonprofits and private organizations that Jensen said requested anonymity but were better equipped to treat the animals.

Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton said the city is only seeking $100,000 for the week that the two men continued ownership of the animals as a way to offset the costs for specialized veterinary care and transportation to specialized facilities for the animals.

"When you're talking about lemurs and camels, not many Oklahoma facilities are able to house these animals, and they require highly specialized veterinary care to maintain," Knighton said.

Additionally, Knighton said there was evidence of frostbite and other injuries that indicated the animals could have been exposed to some of the record-low temperatures the city experienced in February.

The Transcript reached out to Stachmus, a veterinarian employed at the Brookwood Animal Clinic in Oklahoma City, but he declined to comment.

Legislation, regulations remain lackingLegislation to enact some kind of regulatory or licensing process for owners of exotic animals in Oklahoma has faced steep opposition over the years, according to Armstrong.

Her organization has attempted to work with legislators in the past, but she said that the legislation continually fails to progress.

"Polls have shown that about 70% of Oklahomans are against the possession of dangerous exotic wild animals," Armstrong said. "Yet our attempts over the years to limit or prevent the possession of these wild animals have not been received by the legislature."

To keep or breed native Oklahoma wildlife like black bears, mountain lions or bison, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation requires owners to obtain a license.

For those looking to sell their animals, a commercial breeding license costs $48 per year, while those not looking to sell their native Oklahoma animals can obtain a license for $10 per year. These licenses must be renewed annually, and wildlife keepers and breeders are subject to inspection by state game wardens, said Micah Holmes, assistant chief of the Communication and Education Division at the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

None of those state regulatory measures exist for exotic animals.

"It's the purview of the Wildlife Department to oversee native wildlife found within our state's borders and not pets or exotic wildlife that people want to keep," Holmes said.

Federal oversight for exhibitors is handled by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Owners looking to display their exotic wild animals to the public are required to obtain an exhibitor's license.

The annual cost for an exhibitor's license ranges from $30-$300 depending on the number of regulated animals held, and exhibitors are required to meet federal animal care standards that cover humane handling, housing, space, feeding and watering, sanitization, ventilation and more.

These sites can be subject to periodic unannounced visits from the USDA, and failure to meet federal standards can result in the license being revoked if the deficiencies are not corrected in a 90-day period.

None of these same measures exist for exotic animals that are not for exhibition purposes.

"In terms of exotic, if they're kept as pets and not exhibited to the public, [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] doesn't have a role, and you would need to check with the state to see if they have any state-specific regulations," said Andre Bell, USDA public affairs specialist.

Armstrong said one of the biggest concerns for her organization and others like it is not only the wellbeing of the animals, but the potential for animals to escape and pose a threat to the public, as happened in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011, when as many as 56 potentially dangerous exotic animals had to be shot and killed.

When asked if the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has any intention of expanding its licensing or oversight to cover exotic wild animals in light of cases such like Maldonado's and the Rock Creek animal seizure, Holmes said the department intends to continue regulating only native wildlife.

"We want to continue focusing on what is our central charge, which is native and specifically wild animals in Oklahoma," Holmes said.

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