Loophole allows exotic pet owners to keep licenses private

Monday, November 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahomans who own lions, tigers, bears and other exotic animals can hide their ownership from the public thanks to a little-known section of the state's Open Records Act, according to a published report.

The provision allows the state Department of Wildlife Conservation to keep a secret list of people who own exotic animals in Oklahoma, The Tulsa World reported in Monday's editions.

The newspaper discovered the loophole when it asked the Wildlife Department for a list of Oklahomans who hold a commercial breeder's license, which is required to own exotic animals.

The World asked about a specific exotic animal owner who did not appear on the list of licensees provided by the department. A wildlife official said the owner probably was on the "nonpublic list."

The Wildlife Department cited a provision in the Open Records Act that permits those who apply for commercial breeder's licenses to check a box on the application form requesting that their license remain "nonpublic."

The provision states: "The Department of Wildlife Conservation shall keep confidential the information provided by persons, including the name and address of the person applying for or holding any permit or license issued by the department, to the extent the information individually identifies the person."

The provision also means that all hunting and fishing licenses -- as well as other outdoor-related permits the department issues -- are not public.

State Rep. Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, is the author of House Bill 2292 that amended the Open Records Act in 1996. Adair said he sponsored the legislation at the request of the Wildlife Department.

Though aimed primarily at the tens of thousands of hunting and fishing licenses the state issues every year, the law also applies to commercial breeder's licenses.

Adair said hunters were complaining about their privacy being invaded by telemarketers and direct mailings.

Greg Duffy, director of the Wildlife Department, said his department had concerns about whether it could disclose lists of hunting and fishing licenses to marketers.

"In the discussion that ensued, there was concern expressed by hunters and fishermen that this was a double-edged sword and that if someone wanted to find out who's got guns in the house, it would be on the list," Duffy said. "There was also concern that these lists could be targets of anti-hunting and fishing groups."

The law does not apply to holders of commercial hunting and fishing licenses.

Adair said he wasn't aware that the law had resulted in a secret list of commercial breeders.

"I don't see any problem with that information being made available" to the public, he said.

The "public" list furnished to the World contained the names of 158 owners of exotic animals, including 25 who own large cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and mountain lions. Other animals on the list include alligators, snakes, bears and wolves, as well as less exotic animals such as deer, quail, elk and turtles.

The department also furnished an edited copy of the nonpublic list that had the names and addresses of licensees removed. There were 337 owners on this list, including 67 owners of large cats.

The list shows that there are tigers in Sapulpa and bobcats in Broken Arrow, though the edited record does not show who owns these animals or at what addresses they are being kept.

The list also shows that a person in Broken Arrow inside Tulsa County has a bobcat, a ring-tailed cat, a tiger and a leopard -- even though there is a zoning ordinance in Tulsa County prohibiting ownership of such animals.

Exotic animals do not adjust well to a captive environment, said Nicole Paquette, government affairs specialist with the Animal Protection Institute, a nonprofit organization that opposes the ownership of exotic animals as pets.

"People are misguided thinking they can take care of them,"

she said.

Paquette said exotic animals have been involved in the deaths of several people, including one in 1997 at an animal refuge near Oklahoma City where a leopard killed a woman and then escaped from its cage. Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies shot the animal to death after a massive search involving multiple law enforcement agencies.

There are also risks of disease, Paquette said. As many as 90 percent of all reptiles carry salmonella bacteria, and there have been numerous cases of children contracting serious salmonella illnesses from contact with family pets, the Animal Protection Institute said.