Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 1997

Some people keep captive flocks just to watch the graceful animals. Photo by Donna Krischan, © 1997

Caged, penned, swapped and sold

It's been too long a time since the laws governing the ways wild animals are captured, bred, imported, displayed and stocked in Wisconsin were overhauled.

David L. Sperling

Some people keep captive flocks just to watch the graceful animals.

© Donna Kirschan

Containing disease || Lots of territory || Key players

The issues surrounding our fascination to own, hunt and see wild animals are so intertwined that even a millipede would need more appendages to sort them out. Legal questions, business practices and health concerns abound in the world of those who raise, swap, sell and show wild animals. Small wonder that it has taken 15 years of continued negotiations to forge new rules for trafficking "captive wildlife."

By law, people can buy property, but the wild animals that use the land remain public wards of the state. You can't cage wild animals, breed them or release them to the wild without licenses and paperwork. Under proposed revisions to wildlife laws, licensed facilities would need appropriate health documents and inspections. Owners would have to show that animals are properly cared for and kept healthy.

Almost every child at one time or another has come home with a frog, turtle, fish, bird or insect that was found while poking around the neighborhood, and the laws are not set to stifle that curiosity.

"The sale, importation and release of wildlife is more than a hobby; it's a huge business," says Dr. Sarah Shapiro Hurley, DNR veterinarian and manager of wildlife health programs. "Laws governing wild animal protection and human protection just have not kept pace with the changing nature of the wildlife business. Our native species simply need more protection. Moreover, we have to judge how proposed practices might affect people, domesticated animals, other free-ranging wildlife and the captive populations themselves."

Hurley cited a host of goals in revamping captive wildlife laws:

  • preventing the introduction or spread of diseases and parasites
  • ensuring human safety
  • preventing the escape of animals that could compete with agricultural, horticultural, forestry or other wild resources
  • controlling when, how and why animals can be removed from the wild for private use
  • preventing mistreatment of wild animals
  • providing public recreation and education
  • ensuring Wisconsin entities meet federal laws to protect endangered, threatened and migratory species
  • establishing an inspection/management program that pays for itself rather than draining funds from recreational licenses or state tax dollars.

The wild animal business has many players with a host of interests that are largely unseen by the general public. Consider the ways native wildlife is caught, kept or sold: Some pet stores capture and raise native turtles and snakes as pets. Marketers sell wild game and plants as exotic foods. Fish, frogs and salamanders are raised and sold as fishing bait. Biological supply houses do the same to provide school biology classes with specimens for classroom dissection and instruction. Meat dealers process deer into tasty sausages and roasts. Schools set up displays of wild animals; zoos set up huge educational displays. Classes to train sporting dogs use birds and raccoons. Hunting preserves provide the chance to shoot exotic birds. Clothing and furniture manufacturers use exotic hides and furs. Deer farms sell venison to gourmet restaurants and food processors. Wild fur farms raise and sell animals for fur. Falconers capture and train birds as an avocation and education. Scientific collectors lead field trips and conduct research on a host of species. Aquaculture businesses collect, raise and stock fish for food and bait. Wild animal auctions supply the pet trade and collectors. Swap meets offer the chance for hobbyists to find odd-colored skunks and raccoons.

Containing disease is critical

Disease prevention and protection for both wild and domestic animals are key concerns. "Many people who deal in captive wildlife or casually decide to own an exotic pet have not grasped the importance of animal husbandry," Hurley said. "Anyone maintaining exotic animals, keeping captive flocks or allowing domestic animals to mingle near wild populations bears a responsibility to constantly monitor the health of those animals."

Hurley cited a case last summer in which a heifer cow imported from another stae carried bovine tuberculosis into Wisconsin. The threat of an outbreak threatened agribusiness here. Farms where certain contagious diseases are found may lose their Grade A licenses reducing the value of their products for years after the disease has been contained. States with tuberculosis or brucellosis outbreaks lose their disease-free status jeopardizing their ability to sell animals and animal products to national and international markets.

"You can't really separate public health from livestock health or wildlife health," Hurley explained. "Some infectious agents can spread among all three populations."

"Domestic agriculture paid its dues in the 1940s and 50s when diseases like brucellosis and tuberculosis were widespread," Hurley said. "The industry has spent millions eliminating disease, testing herds, keeping health records, and maintaining clean stock. The captive wildlife trade needs to be every bit as careful to protect its business and its relation with other businesses."

There's also the potential for disease spread to wild animals and migrating animals. An outbreak of duck plague last spring near Beaver Dam was traced to a backyard flock of Muscovy ducks kept by an animal rehabilitator. Once the disease was diagnosed, the owner quickly worked with agricultural and natural resource officials to destroy all surviving birds on the property, disinfect the premises, agree that the farm would not be restocked with domestic waterfowl, and refrain from rehabilitating wild waterfowl on the property for at least 90 days. The property is near several wetlands and wildlife areas used by geese and ducks migrating from Canada through Wisconsin and down along the Mississippi Flyway into Louisiana.

One important ally for better monitoring of both captive and domestic animals is Representative DuWayne Johnsrud of Eastman. His Assembly Natural Resources Committee will hold hearings on the proposed revisions to captive wildlife regulations. Johnsrud is concerned about the influx of non-native species and captive animals in agricultural and urban communities. Johnsrud recently told the press he intends to balance the needs of game farms, breeders, brokers and hobbyists with the need to monitor animals coming into Wisconsin and held captive here. "We know [disease] affects wildife, farm life and human life," he says. "We need regulations so we don't worry about the unknown."

Under the proposal, license fees would also rise to cover the truer costs of issuing permits, inspecting facilities and investigating disease outbreaks. Currently, about 5,500 captive wildlife licenses are issued annually bringing in $31,000. Actual program costs are closer to $250,000 annually. The remaining program costs had been borne by recreational license purchasers. The new fees would still remain very reasonable. For instance, Class A licenses for businesses whose sales exceed $10,000 would rise to $200 with $100 annual renewals. Smaller businesses (Class B) would only pay $100 with $50 renewals. Educational exhibitors and scientific researchers would only be charged $25; wild fur farms, $50 for a three-year license; falconers, $75 for a three-year license.

Lots of territory, few rangers

Keeping up with the captive wildlife trade is a big job-much bigger than the two to three people currently assigned to oversee a wide range of activities. A lot has changed since captive wildlife laws were last revised more than 15 years ago and staffing has not kept pace with the increase in captive wildlife businesses and the growth of new ventures.

Aquaculture, for one, has become a large business. Several hundred entrepreneurs now operate fish farms in Wisconsin. Some cater to the food trade, far more raise fish for stocking in private ponds or for sale as fishing bait. Because imported fish stocks could introduce disease to the wild or stocked fish could hard native fish populations, every aquaculture operation that imports fish eggs and spawn and those who stock fish are licensed and inspected.

Exotic game birds are also big business. Pheasants, partridge, quail, mallard ducks and wild turkeys are commonly raised and released on private hunting preserves. Wildlife officials encourage such operations to develop and follow management plans to meet the same standards that domestic poultry raisers use (National Poultry Improvement Plan) to keep stock healthy and quickly contain disease outbreaks. On-site inspections check for humane treatment, healthy conditions and fencing to contain birds prior to stocking and discourage interactions with wild birds.

Deer farms are common in Wisconsin. Some people keep captive herds of white-tailed deer for hunting or sale. Others import exotic species like red deer, fallow deer, Sika deer, reindeer and Pere David's deer. Captive herds of elk and caribou are also maintained. Deer farming is such a large business that inspection and licensing of farms where red deer, Sika, fallow deer and elk are raised was recently transferred to the state Department of Agriculture's livestock farm inspectors. Their major concerns are keeping deer healthy and regularly checking for signs of disease that might spread to wildlife or other domestic stock. Careful record keeping is critical because a duly licensed exotic animal farmer is authorized to possess, buy, sell, exhibit and deal in the animals and animal by-products authorized in the license.

Wild fur farms are also licensed and inspected. These fur farmers manage the land to enhance wild populations of beaver, mink, muskrat, raccoon, otter and other animals raised for fur.

People who raise and train sporting dogs need permits to maintain captive flocks of game birds and raccoons used when training dogs to track point, flush and retrieve. Separate permits are needed to hold field trials where hunting and retrieving skills are tested.

Nature centers and schools with wildlife exhibits are also licensed to ensure that captive animals are maintained in humane conditions and are vaccinated to prevent disease spread.

Animal rehabilitators work with captive wildlife specialists on safety standards and disease prevention. By law, all wild animals rehabilitated in wildlife hospitals remain public property. These animals cannot be sold, traded, bartered, exchanged or displayed without appropriate licenses and federal permits. All healed animals must be returned to the wild if they recover completely from their injuries.

Wildlife researchers and biologists also need licenses to collect insects, fish, birds and mammals for research purposes and classroom demonstrations. Similarly, falconers need to procure special permits to take, propagate and possess raptors. Their permits state the conditions under which the falconer can hunt and exhibit birds taken from the wild.

A few entities, like municipal zoos, are specifically exempted from state captive wildlife requirements because they travel throughout the country and must meet national standards set by federal inspectors. Natural history museums can deal in animal carcasses, eggs and feathers used in public displays and collections.

Sorting out so many issues with such diverse interests is a monumental undertaking. More than 2,100 copies of the first draft rules were mailed back in May 1990. DNR received written comments from 367 interests and more than 2,300 phone calls about the proposals. Subsequent drafts were circulated in 1992 and 1993. Staff visited 36 associations at their annual meetings to discuss the proposals in addition to meeting with potential legislative sponsors.

"We've met and discussed these issues with a wide range of interests and we've drafted proposed changes to state statutes three times now in the last 15 years," notes Dr. Hurley. "I believe that disease concerns in captive native wildlife and exotic imports will become the most important animal health issue in the next 20 years. It's past time that we put a better foundation of laws in place to manage this growing area of the wildlife business."

Legislative hearings on proposed revisions to captive wildlife laws are expected to be scheduled this winter and spring.

Key players in the wildlife set

The captive wildlife business in Wisconsin is huge. Here is a partial listing of organizations and interests that have been partners in reviewing/revamping proposed wildlife protection laws.

Wisconsin Wildlife Federation
Wisconsin Herpetological Society
Wisconsin Rehabilitators Association
Wisconsin Game Breeders
Wisconsin Fur Farmers
Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs
Wisconsin Game Preserve Association
Wisconsin Birds & Game Breeders Association
Wisconsin Conservation Congress
Wisconsin Falconers Association Wings Over Wisconsin
Pheasants Forever
Madison Area Caged Birds Association
Alliance for Responsible Wolf Hybrid Ownership
North American Deer Farmers Association
Exotic Wildlife Association
Elm-Brook Humane Society
Alliance for Animals
Milwaukee County Zoo
Lemberger Biological Supplies
Abe Lincoln Association

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.