Op-Ed: Dangerous animals ordinance goes one step too far


By Bob Marotto and Bryan Stuart

Recently, the Orange County Board of Commissioner amended the Orange County ordinances regulating the keeping and display of wild and dangerous animals. They are to be commended for doing so to ensure the safety of our community because there has been a tremendous change in the exotic “pet” trade since these ordinances were originally enacted in the 1980s.

However, the amendments the Commissioners made now make it illegal for licensed wildlife rehabilitators (rehabbers) to rehabilitate some native wildlife within Orange County.  The reason is that an exemption for rehabbers was repealed as part of the amendment process. This element of the amendments is unfortunate given that we have an ethical responsibility for orphaned and injured wildlife species that are native to North Carolina. 

We served on a task force of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Board (ASAB) that aimed to update the wild and dangerous animal ordinance. Our purpose was to ensure that our ordinances protected the public from the different kinds of potentially dangerous exotic animals that are now readily available through the exotic animal “pet” trade.

This effort was spurred, in part, by recent local events of potential endangerment of the public by exotic “pets.”  A key event was the near death of a community member from a bite in his home by his own king cobra.  As a result, Orange County Animal Services (OCAS) had to seize a large collection of snakes including many non-native venomous snakes.  Several years later, it was discovered that a zebra cobra kept by a young man escaped in a Raleigh neighborhood.  In the meantime, OCAS needed to remove a number of gray wolf hybrids being kept by a resident in northern Orange County.

Some species of wildlife native to North Carolina fit the definition of dangerous animals in the ordinance, including the black bear, bobcat, red wolf, american alligator, and six species of venomous snakes. For this reason, the former rehabber exemption was in place to ensure that injured and orphaned wildlife of all native species could be humanely cared for. We know from our involvement that eliminating the rehabber exemption for native wildlife that are deemed dangerous was not contemplated by the task force of the ASAB. Rather, everyone shared an abiding commitment to the humane care of injured and orphaned wildlife of all native species.

The task force understood that rehabilitation of native wildlife is subject to extensive rules and requirements, and oversight by the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission in the case of state-listed species (e.g. timber rattlesnake) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the case of federally-listed species (e.g. Red Wolf). In North Carolina, an individual can only become a licensed rehabber on the basis of training and an apprenticeship. They are subject to an annual inspection and their license may be revoked by the Commission for failure to comply with pertinent requirements.

This is why we feel that the Commissioners took the necessary and commendable revisions they made to the wild and dangerous animal ordinances one step too far. By removing the exemption for rehabbers of native wildlife, they went beyond the intentions of the ASAB task force, and more importantly, curtailed our responsibility to help some native wildlife when in need of care. We believe that the Commissioners may have been ill-advised, as the amendment they received was shaped, in the end, by an unjustified concern with perceived risks and liabilities held by legal staff.  Also, the Commissioners were not told there are myriad rules and requirements for rehabbing native wildlife.

The need for licensed rehabbers to care for injured and orphaned native wildlife is very different from the choice by some members of the community to keep exotic “pets” that are dangerous under the ordinance. We thus hope the Commissioners will revisit their regrettable decision to repeal the longstanding exemption for licensed rehabilitators of native wildlife.

Bob Marotto
Bob was the County’s Animal Services Director from 2005 to 2021. He is retired and lives in Rougemont.

Bryan Stuart
Bryan is a research biologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  He lives in Hillsborough.

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