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Deaths of N.B. children reveal inconsistencies in exotic pet regulations

Closeup of an African Rock Python

When a two-metre-long Egyptian cobra escaped from a home in Toronto's west end in 2007, sending a neighbourhood into panic, Rob Laidlaw was concerned with something else: How did a cobra end up there in the first place?

In Toronto, you can't buy cobras – or any venomous animals for that matter.

Mr. Laidlaw, the director of animal-protection charity Zoocheck Canada, says the snake must have been purchased elsewhere and illegally transported into the city.

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"We've heard of people buying an animal in Quebec ... who then takes it to another province where it's really not supposed to be," he said. "That type of cross-border thing, I'm sure it happens far more than any of us know."

The inconsistency of regulations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction makes controlling the ownership of exotic pets very difficult, Mr. Laidlaw said.

In the wake of the killing of two young brothers in Campbellton, N.B., by an African rock python, New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources is investigating how the pet store obtained 27 illegal animals (most of which are threatened or endangered species) that were found in the building, including four American alligators that were euthanized Friday. The pet store was owned by the father of the children's friend.

The python that killed the boys was anonymously dropped off at a local SPCA in 2002 and then transported to Reptile Ocean, which was believed to be registered as a zoo at the time but became a pet store, with the help of officers from Environment Canada, according to a department spokesman. Though the snake is banned, because it was already in Canada, the exotic pet store owner did not need a permit to possess it, he said.

On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the federal government will look into whether it should be involved in the regulation of exotic pet stores.

"My understanding is that these types of establishments are regulated mainly by provincial governments. But at our level as well, we will try to ascertain exactly what has occurred, and if there is a federal role, what needs to be done about that," Mr. Harper said in Miramichi, N.B.

British Columbia takes a particularly comprehensive approach to regulating which pets its residents can own: It has a list of all 1,300 prohibited species, including rhinoceroses and dozens of types of sea snakes.

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In Ontario, however, the province leaves the regulation of exotic pets to individual municipalities, which means even if your city bans monitor lizards, there may be a neighbouring town in which you can legally purchase one. Markham, for example, is one of the stricter cities and bans all pythons. But in Oshawa, just a 40-minute drive away, one can easily purchase a ball python (in that city, snake ownership is permitted so long as the snake reaches a maximum adult length of less than three metres). This patchwork of regulations is not ideal, Mr. Laidlaw said, nor is the way governments draw up their exotic pets laws.

Mr. Laidlaw prefers that governments maintain lists of animals that are permitted – not lists of prohibited ones, like most jurisdictions provide.

"This is a ridiculous way for these laws to be set up because when you're looking at animals, there's about 1.5 million species of living organisms that are listed scientifically," Mr. Laidlaw said. "Why not just list the ones that you can keep? It's a lot easier."

But establishing positive lists wouldn't solve all problems: New Brunswick's Fish and Wildlife Act has a so-called positive list that outlines the hundreds of species residents may own, but many that were not on the list wound up at Reptile Ocean.

In addition to the 27 illegal animals, reptile experts found even more dead banned species, including green anaconda snakes, said Bry Loyst, a curator of the Indian River Reptile Zoo who is assisting with the animals.

As he helped catalogue the dead illegal animals – which were "everywhere, all over the place," including in freezers and containers – he was temporarily overcome by a powerful stench as he spoke on the phone on Friday.

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"I wish they all were in freezers and then we wouldn't have to be dealing with this outside, trying to run away from which direction the wind goes," Mr. Loyst said.

With a report from the Canadian Press

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About the Authors

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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