An inside look: Regulating animal encounters in South Carolina

South Carolina News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The rise of the popular Netflix show ‘Tiger King’ has put the world of private zoos and animal exhibits in the spotlight. But who regulates them, and what standards of care are in place for the animals?

According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), South Carolina is one of only a few states that has banned the sale of exotic animals, but has not outright banned the ownership of them.

A 2018 amendment to state law banned the purchase of large wild cats, non-native bears, and great apes. It also put restrictions on the ownership of those exotic animals, with exemptions. People that owned exotic animals before the 2018 law went into effect were allowed to keep them.

Likewise, “any person who [possesses or obtains] a valid United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Class A,B, or C license and is in compliance with the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Act regulations and standards” may keep and continue to purchase exotic animals.

But under the USDA Animal Welfare Act guidelines, many private exhibits are exempt from regulations.

  • Hobby Exhibitors – Anyone who maintains eight or fewer pet animals, “pocket pets,” and/or domesticated farm-type animals for exhibition is exempt from licensing. (“Pocket pets” are small, non-dangerous exotic or wild mammals, such as sugar gliders, hedgehogs, degus, spiny mice, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, and jerboas.) This exemption does not apply to anyone acting in concert with others where they collectively maintain more than 8 of these animals or anyone exhibiting other types of animals.
  • Domesticated Farm Animal Exhibits—Anyone who arranges and takes part in showing only domesticated farm-type animals at agricultural shows, fairs, and exhibits is exempt (e.g., petting zoos with cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits, llamas, and alpacas, exhibits of only racing pigs, etc.).

We spoke to two facilities that are not under USDA or state oversight, but are dedicated to ensuring high standards for animals.

Herd it Here Farm in Cottageville is home to alpacas, horses, goats, chickens, and dogs. Owners Bill and Cheryl Powers think of their animals more like family.

While they are part of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Agritourism Passport Program, they are not regulated by the agency. They do not fall under the purview of the USDA since their animals are considered domesticated farm animals.

Despite the lack of regulations, Bill says that their main priority is the welfare of the animals. He works with mentors — including a Peruvian vet for the alpacas as well as experienced horse and goat farmers — to make sure that his animals are getting the best care possible.

Bill feels that education is key to advancing animal care. He opens his farm to the public to give the community up-close experiences with the animals, but makes sure the experiences are on the animals’ terms.

Groups can observe the animals from a distance, with Bill watching nearby. If some of the friendlier animals, like the goats, are feeling up to it, Bill may allow the group to get a little closer.

In his experience, Bill says that most exotic animal owners he knows are dedicated to keeping standards high. He says that although he doesn’t think stricter regulations are entirely necessary, he would have no qualms about them being imposed, since he already holds himself to the highest standards.

Crewmembers at the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in Summerville are in favor of much stricter regulations and universal standards.

As a sanctuary for gibbons, senior wildlife caregiver and social media manager Stacy Lambert says that they have seen first-hand the devastating impacts of animals subjected to rough conditions.

“All of these animals came from pretty traumatic situations, either in the pet trade where they didn’t get the best care, or zoos where they were used as breeders and then kind of stuck off exhibit.”

Lambert believes that anyone who owns animals has the obligation to give them the best lives possible.

She says that universal standards would ensure animals are receiving the best care possible, and that public funding is going towards the care for the animals.

But with no universal standards currently in place, it is up to the consumer to ensure that they are visiting a reputable facility.

People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) suggests “browsing the facility’s website and social media pages before visiting,” and taking note of the following:

  1. How are the animals housed?
    • The animals’ living facilities should be as close to those of their natural environment as possible. The facilities should be clean and have ample space. Social animals should not be isolated.
  2. What kinds of enrichment do the animals have?
    • Animals should have multiple forms of “physical and psychological simulation,” such as climbing structures, pools or ponds, and fields, according to PETA. PETA says that the activities should “provide outlets for animals to engage in natural behaviors — not to create an appealing scene for visitors.”
  3. Are visitors allowed to touch or hold the animals?
    • Interactions with exotic animals are typically frightening for the animals.

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