Fears that a hungry lion or an angry chimpanzee could escape captivity in South Carolina are driving a plan to prohibit state residents from keeping the exotic animals as pets.
The proposal targeting big cats and great apes sailed through a legislative committee Wednesday and is headed to the House floor for a vote as early as this week.
South Carolina is one of only five states nationally with no restrictions on people owning dangerous wild animals, like apes and large cats, as pets, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
It’s unknown how widespread the practice of owning big exotic pets is in South Carolina. Some counties have adopted regulations in recent years that were intended to curb the practice. Federal rules also have limited interstate transport of big cats.
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But at least 25 people are believed to own such animals as pets in South Carolina -- and the number could be higher, said state Rep. Davey Hiott, who chairs the committee that approved the exotic pet bill. The estimate comes from state wildlife and animal control experts, he said.
“It’s public safety,’’ Hiott , R-Pickens, said. “If one of these things gets out and mauls somebody, the outcry in this state will be ‘Why didn’t somebody know it was there? And why didn’t somebody do something?’ I think of this as sort of being proactive.’’
The bill approved by the House agriculture committee would gradually do away with the practice of keeping dangerous wild animals as pets. A ban would take effect next year. Those already owning big cats, apes and non-native bears could keep them until the animals die, if they registered the large mammals, according to the plan. The bill does not affect zoos because they are federally regulated, lawmakers said.
The issue of people owning wild animals has been of concern in the past two decades after a number of high-profile escapes sent communities across the country into panic and, in some cases, ended in tragedy.
In Connecticut in 2009, a pet chimpanzee attacked and viciously mauled a woman before authorities shot the animal. The woman later had to have a face transplant.
In 2007, a 550-pound pet lion escaped his owner’s property and darted among cars on a busy Ohio interstate. In 2011, a pet mountain lion mauled a 4-year-old Texas boy after it escaped from its owner.
Escapes by exotic pets also have occurred in South Carolina. Two African lions got out of an enclosure in the Sandy Run area southeast of Columbia 15 years ago before they were returned to their owners. Some in the community said they feared for their children’s safety, according to a report in The State from July 25, 2002.
In 1997, a pet cougar escaped in Marion County and was shot by a sheriff’s deputy after numerous attempts to capture it failed, said Charles Ruth, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ big game program coordinator. And an escaped Cougar was also shot by a homeowner in Townville in the late 1980s, he said.
A woman was briefly jailed in Aiken County in 2003 for moving into the county with a 70-pound Bengal tiger cub and an adult baboon, animal control officer Bobby Authers said. The county used the state’s dangerous animal ordinance, normally reserved for vicious dogs, to prosecute her, he said, and the woman quickly moved.
In Orangeburg County in 2013, an ailing adult pet lion was rescued by the Carolina Tiger Rescue foundation in Pittsboro, N.C., according to animal control director Dana Lang.
And two weeks ago, Kershaw County officials, after an inquiry from an out-of-state woman, “strongly discouraged” her from moving there with her pet lion, even though the county has no ordinance prohibiting it, animal control officer Lt. Bobbie Bullington said.
“These animals are not domesticated, even though they are captive-bred,” said Nicole Paquette, an official with the Humane Society of the U.S. in Washington. “They are never going to be domesticated. They retain their natural instincts.’’
Cougars, once native to South Carolina but now declared extinct in the state, sometimes are reported in wooded areas. State wildlife officials don’t dispute that people have seen big cats, but say the animals most likely are escaped pets.
Not all dangerous exotic animals that get loose come from private homes. Sometimes, they have escaped zoos or private animal parks. But experts say accredited zoos are the best places for such wildlife.
Nationally, estimates vary on the number of big cats and apes that people own as pets. One Humane Society estimate places the number of privately owned tigers at 7,000, with another 15,000 apes and monkeys. Another estimate by the wildlife conservation group Born Free USA says there are up to 20,000 big cats owned privately.
In South Carolina, the House bill says existing owners of wild pets would have to register their animals and notify animal control agencies that they have big cats, apes or non-native bears. The owners also would have to develop plans to recapture the beasts if the animals escaped.
As the animals die, the number of exotic cats, apes or non native bears kept as pets would gradually diminish, according to the plan. Animals covered by the proposed law include cougars, lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. People who did not already own any of the big animals before 2018 could not acquire them as pets.
The proposed exotic wild animal law is similar to a rule adopted several years ago for native black bears that had been kept in captivity in South Carolina. Since the rule took effect, the number of native bears in captivity has dwindled to a handful, the DNR’s Ruth said. The federal government also imposed rules about 10 years ago that curtailed the ability to transport big cats across state lines, Ruth said. South Carolina’s controls focus more on the import and sale of deer and state game animals.
“Most of our laws have to do with native wildlife,’’ Ruth said.
Paquette, vice president for wildlife protection at the Humane Society, said many states have in recent years begun to take action like the bill South Carolina lawmakers are considering. But Paquette said the bill before the Legislature could have been stronger.
It doesn’t extend to other types of exotic animals, such as snakes. It also does not include restrictions on roadside zoos that, unlike big accredited zoos, are not always well regulated by the federal government, Paquette said.
Big cats and apes can live longer in captivity than in the wild if properly cared for.
An African Lion can live up to 18 years in the wild, but 25 to 30 years in captivity, according to the Pittsburgh Zoo. Male lions can weigh 550 pounds, stand four feet at the shoulder and be up to 10 feet long. Siberian Tigers, which can weigh up to 675 pounds, can live 15 years in the wild and more than 20 years in captivity.
Chimpanzees, which reach heights of three feet and weigh up 130 pounds, live up to 45 years in the wild and 60 years in captivity, according to the University of Wisconsin.
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
Local laws on exotic pets
Richland County – Prohibited
Lexington County – Prohibited
Kershaw County – None
Sumter County – None
Calhoun County – Must register the pets
Aiken County – None
Orangeburg County – Prohibited
Fairfield County – Display prohibited
Edgefield County – Prohibited
Compiled by Jeff Wilkinson