Winnipeg Did The Right Thing…But May Not Know It

By Barry Kent MacKay

Three cheers and a hurrah for the city of Winnipeg and for the Winnipeg Humane Society. They did the right thing—but must suffer some slings and arrows from the possibly well-intended (but definitely misguided) citizens they serve.

Recently, a man known as “Safari Jeff” was fined $1,500 CND for violating an exotic animal bylaw (called “ordinance” in the U.S.) that prohibits traveling zoos and exhibits with prohibited reptile species within city limits. Safari Jeff is one of those guys who likes to dress up in a cross between the late Steve Irwin and the fictional Indiana Jones and show off his prowess with various “exotic” wildlife species (to the admiring oohs and ahhs of people who know virtually nothing about, and often fear, the animals displayed). His real name is Jeff McKay, and from August 6 to August 9, he was performing on stage at Kildonan Place Shopping Center.

Javier Schwersensky, CEO of the Winnipeg Humane Society, quite correctly said, “The air conditioning of a mall can be very punishing to these exotic animals and extremely stressful to their internal organs.” He added, “It is a recognized standard of amphibian care that there be not only a proper diet and plenty of space, but travel be limited and species from differing regions kept separate.”

Appropriately, and to his credit, Schwersensky was expressing concern for the reptiles. As I’ve stated before, it can be difficult or impossible to recognize stress, fear, or illness in a reptile or amphibian.

But, there is also a dangerous risk to people too subtle to be widely recognized. Reptiles tend to carry a disease pathogen called salmonella: one of many zoonotic diseases routinely found in reptiles. One scientific study in the U.S. found that some 81% of pet snakes carried the disease—harmless to them, but a threat to humans. Safari Jeff, like others of his kind, seems to encourage kids to touch the reptiles. On one level, this is good in that it helps to dispel the often irrational fear folks have of harmless reptile species. Ironically, it is that fear that often draws them to performances like Safari Jeff’s.

But, there are risks—not only to the animals, but to the people. Salmonella germs on the skins of reptiles or on surfaces they have touched can survive on fingers or clothing and be transmitted to other people. A healthy person contracting the disease may only suffer some gastrointestinal discomfort some days later and dismiss it as a brief bout of flu or stomach upset, but for an immunosuppressant or physically frail household member, it can be extremely serious… even fatal. That’s why many public health agencies recommend that certain people, such as children under five years of age, the elderly, anyone who has recently had surgery, or pregnant women, not touch reptiles or many other exotic animals at all.

Even I, who am used to handling all manner of reptiles and other animals, keep hand sanitizer with me in the field for use immediately after, for example, rescuing a turtle.

Yes, the kids are told to wash their hands. But, between touching and washing, clothing can be touched, as well, so the problem does not go away. Even hand-washing should be done for several minutes, with high-grade antiseptic soap (which young children may not do).

By all accounts, McKay did not intend to break the law. But, neither he nor his manager was able, for whatever reason, to determine that there even was such a law. And, I’m sure that he, like so many others like him I’ve encountered through the years, thinks he is not hurting any animals.

Just a week later, in Toronto, we found out how wrong such self-proclaimed experts can be. One hundred fifty alligators, crocodiles, and caimans were transferred from a “home” in Toronto (where keeping such animals is illegal) to a reptile zoo in eastern Ontario. According to news reports, the “pets” grew too large for the couple who was keeping them in their home in an unnamed part-residential, part-light-industrial area of the city. The story is breaking as I type, and details are sparse, so it’s uncertain if charges were, or will be, laid.

McKay, who is from Red Deer, Alberta, has been touring North America with his show for 28 years. He does about 100 shows per year, and says this was his seventh time at Kildonan Place. He reportedly said that he’d be willing to continue appearing there if it just meant a $1,500 fine each time—but not the $1,500 per animal, as could be the case if he continues breaking the law.

What is disappointing (but not unexpected) is the reaction of some people who are accusing the city of Winnipeg of being heavy-handed spoil-sports for levying the fine. They either don’t realize or don’t care that the bylaw—one of the most progressive in Canada—is there for good reasons.

It’s a sad reality that, too often, the people who are likely to appear to be reptile experts are not the best judges of what is good for either reptiles or people. Yes, they know more about reptiles than the average person—but that bar is set extremely low, indeed. For example, chameleons, who McKay features in his show, are fragile and difficult to properly maintain. Many species are critically endangered, and yet are subject to illegal trade because of the demand that pet stores, reptile displays, and shows tend to encourage (even if unintentionally).

These animals are not biological automatons, but individuals with complex psychological, social, and biological needs that are typically not satisfied in captivity and that are probably impossible to satisfy in traveling situations. In some cases, the animals are also physically dangerous. There are files of references to things going wrong, sometimes tragically, as when two little boys sleeping above a pet shop in Campbellton, New Brunswick were killed by a rock python just two years ago. For all such horrific disasters, there are instances of serious bites and scares—and, almost inevitably, the assumption up to that moment is that “experts” are in control and all is safe.

I don’t want kids to be afraid of snakes and lizards, but I do want them to respect that there are risks involved, both to themselves and the animals, from close contact. These animals are not entertainers, and shows like Safari Jeff’s do not provide solid education. The “ooh and ahh” factors these wonderful creatures elicit don’t justify them being used in this fashion—nor does the threat, however indirect, they pose to the public.

It’s a good, solidly progressive bylaw that is in place in Winnipeg, and the Winnipeg Humane Society did the right thing for the right reasons. I hope the good people of Winnipeg can appreciate that.

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