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Richmond City Council still tinkering with wild animal rules

A small, slender critter with black skin and grey stripes along its body
Greg Schechter
Creative Commons 2.0
Richmond City Council is considering a measure to make it illegal to own certain wild and exotic animals. But in negotiation, a carve out was added for residents who already own venomous or poisonous reptiles or amphibians, such as this marbled salamander, to keep them.

It was supposed to be a simple regulatory fix for owning rabies-prone critters. It’s a lot more complicated now.

Maybe you’ve heard: The city of Richmond is pursuing its own ban on owning certain wild and exotic animal species. If passed, anyone found with an outlawed animal without a state or federal permit could be charged with a class 3 misdemeanor. The ban covers nonhuman primates, crocodilians, poisonous or venomous reptiles and amphibians, raccoons, big cats, wolves and more.

Pitched by Richmond Animal Care and Control officials as a simple fix for people taking in venomous animals and other common, rabies-prone critters without proper training, the resolution was placed on the consent agenda. That’s a spot the council reserves for uncontroversial legislation. It was expected to pass quickly on May 22.

But it didn’t.

Lobbying by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers and other groups resulted in the addition of a grandfathering clause. Now, any person already owning a venomous or poisonous reptile or amphibian would get 180 days to register with the city without threat of losing their animals (and that class 3 misdemeanor) in the meantime.

The ordinance was then pushed back two weeks to the June 12 council meeting, where it was again placed on the consent agenda. Passage seemed imminent.

But it still wasn’t.

More falconers, reptile keepers, pet advocates and state officials attended Monday’s City Council meeting than at any previous hearing on the ordinance. Among them was Rebecca Gwynn, executive deputy director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

“While I appreciate the intent of the ordinance, the current language is confusing, and as written will put city residents and employees in jeopardy of violating state laws and regulations,” Gwynn told the council.

Gwynn said she wasn’t aware of the draft ordinance’s existence until late May, and that neither DWR nor private stakeholders had provided enough input on the matter. According to Gwynn, some parts of the ordinance would outlaw a limited list of dangerous animals, arguably leaving unlisted species as perfectly legal pets.

Other sections appear to give local animal control officers the ability to release improperly owned animals into the wild — which is expressly against state law.

Alyssa Miller-Hurley is a government affairs director with the nonprofit Pet Advocacy Network. She thinks Richmond has good intentions, but said many localities “don't necessarily know where to start when doing outreach.”

Miller-Hurley and several exotic animal owners expressed concern about a list of acceptable small, captive-bred mammals included in the ordinance.

“By creating a list, we're forcing people into a very narrow grouping of animals that they can or cannot have,” Miller-Hurley told VPM News.

That could also create headaches for the city in the future, Miller-Hurley said, if ideas of what is acceptable as a “pet” grow beyond the relatively limited list.

Richmond-based falconer Corey Basham also attended the meeting and said beginner falconers rely on wild birds. He asked council to “include language that assures falconers or anyone with a license to possess wildlife issued by a federal or state agency will not be subject to a ban on wildlife within city limits.”

Representatives of the Richmond SPCA and the Virginia chapter of the U.S. Humane Society both spoke in favor of the ordinance at Monday’s council meeting.

“Every day, law enforcement personnel and first responders risk their lives in the line of duty, but they should never have to face something as extraordinary as a monkey or king cobra,” said Molly Armus of the Humane Society.

2nd District councilperson Katherine Jordan oversees the committee that gave preliminary approval to the ordinance. She requested another two-week delay on Monday.

“I do think, sometimes, you don't get the feedback you need until it's actually up for full council vote,” Jordan said.

RACC director Christie Peters said the updated language is incomplete.

The ordinance is once again on the consent agenda for the Monday, June 26 City Council meeting.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.