London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
If you took the city of London, turned it upside down at any given time and shook it, you might see a large snake, an alligator, a lion or even a wolf fall out.
In fact, Judy Foster, executive director of the London Humane Society, said her organization comes across such exotic animals “on a regular basis” and the society often ends up housing them if they are seized from a home.
“We have a whole host of aquariums here for exotics,” she said. “We wouldn’t have them if we didn’t think we needed them on short notice.”
But no one, from Foster, to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), to the Peterborough-based sanctuary that takes reptiles from the Forest City, seems to know exactly how or why they end up in London.
Last week, the society took in 10 exotic snakes from a northeast London home after police received reports of a foul smell coming from a residence on Wyndham Crescent.
The majority of the snakes were boa constrictors in poor health and five other snakes were dead.
Foster said this seizure, however, is relatively small compared to what the society has come across in the past.
Three years ago, more than 200 animals, including a pair of alligators, as well as iguanas, turtles and even Brazilian cockroaches were found in a house in the northeast part of the city.
And Foster said the society has come across wolves and lions in the past.
So where are they coming from?
“We’ve been asking ourselves that question,” Foster said, adding such animals may have been imported to the city through legal and illegal means, or people may be breeding them here.
“There’s no way of knowing if they’re being smuggled in or if they’re being bred here. We’ve had people tell us that ‘I brought this crocodile in as a baby and I had him between my shirt and my coat jacket when I went through the airport.’
“Some people are so determined to do this, they’ll put these things on their body and go through customs with it.”
Or, she added, since a female boa constrictor can give birth to up to 60 snakes, there’s also a “ready supply” of locally bred animals.
“Honestly, we don’t know where these animals are coming from,” Foster said. “We do believe there must be some sort of network that allows these animals to be moved about. But we don’t know how they’re doing it.”
Kyle O'Grady, assistant curator at the non-profit Indian River Reptile Zoo near Peterborough, which takes in reptiles seized in London by the humane society and other organizations, was also at a loss when it came to trying to pinpoint the origins of many of the exotic animals turning up in homes across the province.
Importation, however, does play a huge role in the exotic animal trade, he added.
“The means in which they are brought into Canada are vast— from being hidden amongst cargo to driven across the border. These animals are brought legally and illegally into Canada,” O’Grady said. “Currently there are no provincial laws in Ontario regulating ownership of exotic animals. Anyone can buy a tiger, lion, cobra, or crocodile, etc.”
Although unable to provide statistics on how often her agency busts animal smugglers trying to cross the border, Amitha Carnadin, a spokeswoman for the CBSA, did share a few examples of how people try to sneak animals into Canada.
In September, 2009, CBSA officers found nearly 1,500 reptiles, including 36 tortoises and nine snakes listed as controlled species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, hidden behind side panels in a van owned by a man from Niagara-on-the-Lake who was attempting to illegally import the animals into Canada near Niagara Falls.
Carnadin said the reptiles likely originated in Louisiana and the majority of them “were subsequently returned to the wild” in that state.
Andrew Fruck was subsequently handed a six month jail sentence and was ordered to pay more than $5,700 in restitution.
Earlier this month, Carnadin added, Kwok Sing Lee, a resident of Vancouver, was fined $7,500 for attempting to import 29 songbirds from China.
She said Lee failed to “present the birds for inspection” and did not have the required permits to bring the birds into the country.
“The importation of pet birds is prohibited from certain countries in which highly pathogenic avian influenza is considered endemic,” Carnadin said. “Presently the importation of pet birds from China is prohibited.
“If Mr. Lee had declared the birds, no penalty would have been issued, but the birds would not have been permitted to enter Canada.”
With the exception of animals that could pose a health risk or threaten Canadian ecosystems, people can import a wide variety of animals, including those considered as exotic, into the country as long as they possess the right documentation and declare the animals when entering Canada, Carnadin said.
Such weak, or non-existent, laws lead to exotic animals ending up in the hands of people who don’t know how to properly care for them, Foster said, and that situation needs to change.
“We need to be introducing federal regulations to ban individual ownership of exotic pets. We’re talking about reptiles and exotic animals. We don’t believe reptiles and lions and tigers should be owned.”
The City of London does have a bylaw in place which prohibits certain types of animals from being kept in residences within the city and places restrictions on the sizes of animals that can be kept.
For example, venomous animals are not allowed to be kept in homes and animals normally found in the wild, “whether or not it has been bred and/or raised in captivity,” including crocodiles, alligators, tigers, lions and monkeys, are prohibited from being kept within municipal boundaries, although certain institutions such as zoos, research facilities or animal hospitals are exempt from the bylaw.
But beyond the legal issues surrounding the possession of exotic animals, Foster said she didn’t have an answer as to why anyone would want to keep a potentially dangerous creature in their home.
“It may be curiosity, it may be novelty, but quite honestly, we don’t know.”