ST. LOUIS - Two tiger attacks this week at two different Missouri animal facilities that had both been cited for past problems have law enforcement officials calling for tougher exotic animal laws.
On Monday, a 16-year-old worker entered a tiger pen at the Predator World attraction in southwest Missouri to take pictures for a visitor and was attacked by three of the big cats. The boy, Dakoda Ramel, remained in critical condition Tuesday at a Springfield hospital. There was no immediate response to a call seeking an update on his condition Wednesday.
Just the day before, a separate tiger attack in eastern Missouri cost a 26-year-old volunteer part of his leg. Jacob Barr's leg below the knee was amputated after he was attacked by a tiger Sunday at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal facility in Warrenton. Barr faced more surgery Wednesday at a St. Louis hospital.
Federal officials have pointed to problems at both facilities. A 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection at Predator World noted three instances of animals getting out of their pens: two wolves that escaped into the community; a grizzly bear that remained on the property but was able to kill a tiger; and a fox that was hit by a car.
The Wesa-A-Geh-Ya facility, which used to have a license to exhibit its animals through the USDA, surrendered that license in 2003 and then had it revoked after a number of violations involving animal care were alleged.
Critics say a patchwork of laws means no single agency in the state or nation is responsible for law enforcement and inspections related to exotic animals like large carnivores. One of the tiger owners, while deeply upset by the tiger attack, said she thinks existing regulations contributed to the problem.
Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison said he'd like the state to improve exotic animal laws, but in recent weeks he proposed changes at the county level.
"I think it's such a politically charged topic: What do you do with these exotic animals?" he said.
Both Harrison and Sheriff Richard Hill, of Stone County where the other tiger attack took place, said in Missouri owners are supposed to register their exotic animals with their sheriff's department. But they said the law doesn't specify how soon after possessing an animal someone must register. The law also lacks requirements for proper enclosures, or how often the registration needs to be updated.
The Missouri Department of Conservation visits Wesa-A-Geh-Ya at least annually to check on animal species that are native to the state, like mountain lions, wolves and a bear - though the wolves at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya are Arctic wolves.
"There's never been any problem with them mistreating the animals or problems with the enclosures," said Dan Zarlenga, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation.
But the agency does not inspect animals not native to Missouri, like the tigers.
Sandra Smith, one of the owners of Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, said existing regulations are confusing and problematic. She said she had wanted to make cages more secure but was told she couldn't without a local permit.
"If there's going to be more regulations, put someone on the job who knows what they're doing," she said.
Smith said she's getting out of animal care altogether. She said she's started looking for new homes for the 49 animals on her property.
Harrison said Wesa-A-Geh-Ya owners needed to take responsibility for the tiger attack, saying they were the ones who decided to house wild animals on the site behind chain-link fences.
Predator World did not respond to requests for comment.
The USDA report on Predator World, provided by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, notes that two of the previous animal incidents at the facility occurred during storms.
The fox escaped after a tree fell on its enclosure during an ice storm. The bear also escaped from its enclosure when a tree limb fell after a storm, "allowing it to enter the enjoining enclosure and kill an adult female tiger."
Hill said that if exotic animal owners don't register the creatures, authorities will not have accurate, updated information about what potentially dangerous animals are residing in their counties during severe weather.