Prompted by the recent escape of two chimpanzees, county commissioners on Tuesday approved changes to the policy regulating ownership of exotic animals in unincorporated Clark County.
Instead of treating it as a land use issue, the commissioners want to know more about who owns the animals and whether they are capable of taking care of them while keeping the animals – and the public – safe.
The County Commission voted unanimously to take control of the issue, which currently is handled by the county’s Planning Commission.
County commissioners asked for changes that would do the following:
■ Define what animals are considered exotic.
■ Verify the education and expertise of someone wanting to own exotic animals.
■ Require the property owner to be the animals’ owner.
■ Request input from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on applications for exotic pets.
■ Require owners to regularly renew their special use permit.
■ Have Animal Control officers conduct annual inspections.
■ Increase the notification neighbors receive when someone applies to own an exotic animal.
County staff will draw up the new regulations. More details are expected at a future zoning board meeting, possibly as soon as Sept. 5, county officials said.
Commissioner Steve Sisolak prompted the discussion of changes after the escape of two chimps in a Las Vegas neighborhood. Las Vegas and North Las Vegas police responded when chimps Buddy and C.J. escaped from their cage last month. Las Vegas police shot and killed Buddy. North Las Vegas police tranquilized C.J., who survived.
The county treats keeping exotic animals as a land use issue rather than examining an owner’s qualifications to care for the animals. Animal Control officers perform inspections but generally only when land use permits are issued or when a neighbor expresses concern.
Neighbors are notified through the mail that a public hearing is scheduled when someone applies for a land use permit that also includes an exotic animal component.
The land use application already requires a justification letter, but it doesn’t specifically address exotic animal ownership, said Nancy Lipski, the county’s director of comprehensive planning.
“Why do they need lions and tigers and bears on their half acre in the northwest? That is, I think, the detail” county commissioners are looking for, Lipski said.
Fourteen properties in the county have permits for wild animals. Seven are licensed by the USDA, which conducts yearly inspections. But the USDA regulates people who make a profit off the animals and does not include private ownership.
The federal regulators oppose private ownership of exotic animals as pets. The state Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Division only regulates animals native to Nevada.
There was a push to increase regulations a decade ago after a tiger killed its handler at a licensed county property. That proposed ordinance would have employed an Animal Control officer to handle applications and inspections of exotic animals and require owners to keep liability insurance. But the proposal wasn’t passed.
It took Buddy and C.J.’s escape to reenergize the discussion.
Requiring property owners to be the animals’ owners is in response to the chimp escape to eliminate boarding issues.
Until Animal Control officers began looking into Buddy and C.J.’s escape, county officials thought property owners David and Sheri Potochan also were taking care of the chimps. Their names have appeared on every application since the permit was first approved almost nine years ago. Timmi DeRosa, who co-owned the chimps with Nikki Grusenmeyer, told the Review-Journal she didn’t know the Potochans had misrepresented themselves to the county.
Animal Control officers also were surprised to hear DeRosa and Grusenmeyer were paying monthly rent to house the primates.
Ken Foose, owner of Exotic Pets Las Vegas, doesn’t have a problem with tighter regulations.
“I object to selling anything that can eat me,” said Foose, whose store sells reptiles, birds, arachnids, scorpions and exotic mammals, but not tigers, lions or primates. “It’s as simple as that. … We don’t sell large carnivores that can rip someone’s head off.”
Foose pointed out that he sells some spiders and scorpions with venom powerful enough to kill a human in one bite or sting.
“There’s absolutely no federal regulation or state regulation against that,” he said. “The state of Nevada does not recognize arachnids or insects as animals at all. So there’s no regulation.”
The county does regulate snakes. If they measure 6 feet or less in length, they’re considered household pets. If they are longer than that, they’re considered exotic, Lipski said.
The chimp escape is generating discussion at a state level as Sen. Michael Roberson works to ban Nevadans from keeping chimps, large wild cats and other exotic animals as pets. The Las Vegas Republican is working with the Humane Society of the United States on the proposed ban.
Warren Hardy, a former state senator who is helping to work on the legislation, said it will be tailored for “dangerous exotic animals.”
“Our focus is the tiger in the basement,” Hardy said.
But Foose, the pet shop owner, cautioned against an outright ban until policymakers can decide what animals to prohibit.
Other new policies being considered could include prohibiting the stacking of animal cages and creating additional requirements providing shade for exotic animals housed outside. The county already addresses shade requirements for animals such as horses.
Commissioner Tom Collins said the county needs to hire more Animal Control officers to do inspections. “Otherwise, this is futile.”
When fully staffed, there are 15 county Animal Control officers, including a senior officer and a supervisor who are the only two to use tranquilizer guns.
Currently, the county has a senior officer trained with the gun and is looking to hire a supervisor. As part of the discussion about hiring a new Animal Control supervisor, the county is evaluating whether to get more tranquilizer guns.
Collins said he does not support the proposed ownership ban.
“Prohibitions and bans, like in the ’30s, don’t work,” Collins said, referring to the prohibition on alcohol.
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.