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Bill targets dangerous animals, and their owners

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SPRINGFIELD — What do a kangaroo, grizzly bear and hippopotamus have in common? They could cost their owners a pretty hefty fee.

By Anthony Brino and Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — What do a kangaroo, grizzly bear and hippopotamus have in common? They could cost their owners a pretty hefty fee.

Senate Bill 3264 would require the owner of a dangerous animal to pay $250 annually to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. The fee would be assessed per owner, not per pet.

Out-of-state owners visiting the state and bringing their unusual pet with them would have to purchase permits, too, though their permits would cost $100 and be valid for 30 days.

"We need a way to make sure (DNR) has the ability to control the most dangerous of the exotic animals. These animals are being sold without much oversight," said state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, sponsor of the bill.

Steans said taxpayers often fund efforts to catch or control exotic animals that escape or injure people.

She said the law would help stop people from owning animals they can't care for by setting up a screening process for owners before giving final approval.

Anyone caught with an animal listed in the legislation without an up-to-date registration faces a misdemeanor for a first offense followed by a felony for a second offense.

State Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, said he was worried that animals could be added through the rule-making process, which requires approval from only a handful of legislators instead of the entire General Assembly and governor.

Steans said she is looking at altering her legislation, so additions to the dangerous animal list cannot be made so easily.

Lauren Malmberg, director of the Peoria County Animal Protection Services, said she has witnessed the need for Steans' legislation in the course of doing her job.

Malmberg said she's investigated bites from monkeys, tigers and various snakes and other reptiles. Her department's biggest find in the wild was a 14-foot Burmese python, a snake native to Asia. Owners release these snakes into the wild after they grow too large. It's a problem common in the Florida Everglades.

"It's practically cheaper to get a lion or tiger cub than to get a purebred puppy. Virtually anyone can get an exotic animal, and a lot of people are ill-equipped to have them," Malmberg said.

Malmberg said her department also found a 6-foot alligator, an arctic fox and Tegu lizards.

"I don't think these animals should even be in captivity, unless it's a well-managed zoo," she said.

Scott Smith owns All Animal Expo in Wheaton. Twice a month, he rents out 22,000 feet at the DuPage County Fairgrounds and hosts 60 to 100 vendors from around the country, who sell everything from prairie dogs to pythons to iguanas and more rarely lions, tigers or bears.

"This would shut us down," he said.

Smith owns prairie dog, which he described as the "sweetest thing in the world," as well as two ring-tailed lemurs, which are primates found only in Madagascar, and a 6-foot Burmese python.

"Not everyone should own one," he said of the python. Smith said he thinks the new permit system would drive much of the pet trade underground, creating an animal black market.

Steans said she is looking at making the per-owner fees one time only. She did not address the temporary, out-of-state fees.

Circuses and zoos would be exempt from registration.

The legislation is being held in the state Senate Agriculture and Conservation Committee, while Steans crafts her amendment.

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