Added 15 July 2001: added Norway goes authoritarian on 15 February 2002.
Most people living in civilised societies recognise the need for some laws to cover the relationships between humans and animals, even if only the most basic recognition of the rights of ownership of individual creatures. Most animal keepers themselves realise the necessity of legislating on the custody of different species to a minimum degree, so that people do not blithely buy king cobras or tigers and try to keep them in unsuitable accommodation, thus endangering their neighbours. At their best, these laws serve to protect not only keepers and those around them but the animals themselves.
Unfortunately there is a trend at the moment towards rushed legislation inspired by panic, ignorance or even malice. Some of this can be attributed to the campaign of disinformation put out by certain animal rights groups, but more worrying is the amount pushed through by legislators who know little of the subject on which they are legislating.
What follows is a spotlight on some of this shoddy lawmaking. Some of these laws have already been passed, others are in the offing. Where they have not yet entered the statute books, we hope that enough people of good sense and good will will be able to have a beneficial effect on the course of events. Where they are already in force, we can only hope that reason will prevail and that they can be reformed or even repealed.
None of this type of legislation, incidentally, is confined to one country. It seems that knee-jerk reactions, pandering to pressure groups and simple misinformation or prejudice are a worldwide phenomenon.
The town on Little Rock, Arkansas in the USA has the dubious distinction of being the first to feature on this page. The Central Arkansas Herpetological Society has recently discovered that a proposed ordinance would ban the (currently legal) keeping of venomous reptiles.
Bizarrely, this situation would never have come about if a local man had not been bitten by a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Although he is apparently okay, people were astonished to discover that it has been in fact legal to keep venomous snakes provided that one had the correct permit, issued by the local zoo director, with inspections of facility etc. In other words, the keeping of venomous snakes was specifically provided for by law with sensible precautions. This wasn't good enough for some folks, and in a wave of hysteria all venomous snakes been targeted. There have been suggestions that constrictors over a certain size and ferrets may be included either under this legislation or a later law. How the ferrets came to be included in this roundup of public enemies is not clear. Voters and herp keepers in Little Rock may like to ask their local parties who the representatives are who are trying to enforce this restriction.
The vote has been deferred partly as a result of intervention by a zoo official until September 1st. Until then herpetologists, hobbyists and concerned citizens might like to ask representatives why they want to change the law, whether there are plans to ban larger constrictors and ferrets as "dangerous", and how this proposed legislation will prevent some venomous snake keepers from going underground and possibly causing a greater threat than if they were monitored under law by responsible authorities.
Polite queries and letters, please, to the mayor at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and the Board at email@example.com.
In recent history Scandinavia has rightly been hailed as a land of liberal democracies coupled with high standards of living and social welfare. Occasionally, however, there are odd quirks that provide laws more in line with autocratic monarchies or totalitarian dictatorships.
Bizarrely, in 1974 the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture decided to put a ban on all exotic (non-native) pets, and on 1 January 1977 this law was put into effect. Although the law states that reptiles may be kept with a special dispensation from the Ministry of Agriculture, in practice this only seems to be granted to very few people, and they are not allowed to sell to other Norwegians. As the law stands, a private individual can now be heavily fined or even imprisoned for owning even the most common of "exotics". Tellingly, however, the law is also very unevenly applied. Thus hamsters and chinchillas, for example, which were never native to Norway, are sold freely in pet shops and kept freely in people's homes. In practice this draconian situation is aimed almost entirely against reptile keepers.
Penalties can be up to six months' imprisonment (a fate usually reserved for those keeping poisonous snakes) and fines of up to 20,000 Norwegian krona (about £1,600, $2,300 or 4,800 euros). Perhaps worst of all, however, is the fate of the innocent animals. Unless passed on to Kristiansand Zoo (now the only zoo left in Norway), they are euthanised.
Needless to say, such a climate of legal persecution makes life very difficult for those brave souls who are willing to break it. Even the simplest things, such as buying food for herps, can raise suspicions, yet in another bizarre anomaly the sale of items for the maintenance of captive animals is not itself illegal. Trips to the vet are fraught not only because few if any Norwegian vets will have the opportunity to practice with herps but because the vet may feel duty bound to notify the police, a train of events which ironically can cause the complete negation of the very purpose of the vet, ie the life of the animal.
The Norsk Herpetologisk Forening (Norwegian Herpetological Association - website unfortunately as yet only in Norwegian) was formed in 1970 and is now working for a change in the law to allow the legalisation of captive reptiles and amphibians. This law in a European country is not only restrictive but at variance with the practice of its neighbours, including all the other Scandinavian countries, and if Norway were to enter the European Union then it could be successfully challenged under the European Human Rights Act. We can only hope that the situation in Norway will change for the better.
For more on the Norwegian situation, click here.
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