Posted: October 25, 2017 at 3:13 am

by Mariah Congedo, Amy Pratt, and Rayla Claypool

James Maxwell, the West Virginia state veterinarian, left Florida in June 2017 for a new office in Charleston, WV. Little did he know, he wasn’t leaving the large Florida reptiles behind.

Within his first few weeks in West Virginia, Maxwell received a call about a snake, 10- to 12-feet long, loose in a Parkersburg subdivision.

“I’m like, ‘holy crap!’ I thought I was getting away from this. It was obviously a boa constrictor or python that got away,” said Maxwell.

A huge python in suburban West Virginia sounds outlandish at first, but it isn’t as crazy as it seems. Owning a boa constrictor or python in West Virginia is easier than one might imagine.

Maxwell got the call from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, who got the call from the United States Department of Agriculture. It came down to Maxwell to respond to the concerned residents of the subdivision. Unfortunately, Maxwell, even though he is the state veterinarian, did not have the resources or personnel to respond to the call.

“I’m the only one of my staff who has ever messed with a python because I’m from Florida. I got with a USDA vet, and he’d never had a call about a giant snake in West Virginia. He happened to know a reptile person in that area, and they went out and rescued the snake,” Maxwell said.

As the state veterinarian, Maxwell is in charge of regulating the transportation of livestock and other domestic animals in West Virginia. He makes sure animals coming into or through the state are not carrying diseases that could affect native populations or humans. Animals brought into the state must have a permit, have a disease test and have a health certificate.

Livestock and poultry are usually his main concerns, not a 10-foot long snake. But, Maxwell is also in charge of enforcing the West Virginia Dangerous Wild Animal Act, which was passed in September 2016.

The Dangerous Wild Animal Act regulates exotic animal ownership in West Virginia. In most states enforcing a law about exotic animal regulation would be under the Department of Natural Resources, but in West Virginia it is under the Department of Agriculture.  

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act has a list of animals considered exotic that require permits from the state for people who want to own them. Animals on the list include elephants, tigers, lions, bears, wolves and other animals considered dangerous to humans. The list is long, but not comprehensive.

For example, the only reptile on the list is the komodo dragon. Alligators and crocodiles are not on the list, and thus can be owned in West Virginia without regulation. Wolves are on the list, but wolf hybrids are not. A citizen could own a dog that is 99 percent wolf and one percent domestic canine without any regulation. Capybaras, the largest rodents in the world, are not on the list. Maxwell said he received a call from a woman asking if she could bring a capybara to West Virginian. She could and did not need a permit for it.

“It’s pretty tough [to enforce] because in the last several years in all state governments, not just West Virginia, there’s been a shrinkage and we’ve lost people, lost budgets, lost vehicles, lost a whole bunch of things, but I’ve had calls since I’ve been here,” said Maxwell.

Maxwell does not have any law enforcement to help him respond to calls about escaped dangerous animals. He has not issued any permits since coming to West Virginia in June.

“The statute is with good intentions for a good purpose, I just think there needs to be some refinement to add some more value to it,” said Maxwell. “ Enforcement on something like this is unbelievably difficult even for law enforcement. What are you going to do, go door to door? Once they’re out and they’re moving all over creation and there’s a black market on them, it’s really difficult to control that kind of stuff.”

Hovatters Zoo

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act also applies to zoos. There are very few zoos in West Virginia, and the ones that do operate in the state aren’t large. According to John Seyjagat, the executive director of the Zoological Association of America, the size of the zoo doesn’t change the standards the zoo must meet for animal care and housing.

Darby Grimm runs the gift shop at Hovatters Zoo in Kingwood, West Virginia. In the gift shop she helps take care of customers while also caring for the guinea pigs, snakes and iguanas who live in the shop. When there are baby animals born at the zoo, she will also help bottle feed them.

Hovatters Zoo is family-owned with Bryen Hovatter as the head supervisor. Hovatter helps to train his employees in caring for the animals since he is the only one with certifications.

“No one has any certifications except the owner, and he trains the workers for what he needs them to do,” Grimm said.

Seyjagat said that zoos in West Virginia generally have four sets of standards they have to meet: the ZAA standards, the federal and state regulations for wildlife, and any county regulations, which could include anything from animal care licenses to building codes. The USDA is a major component in regulating and inspecting the upkeep and care of all the diverse animals in the zoo.

“The USDA manages everything we do, except for the bird exhibits. They will tell us how big the enclosures must be, what kind of tests to have on each animal, what diet they recommend for each animal and much more,” Grimm said.

The USDA also requires that zoos keep a log for each baby animal that states when they ate, what they ate and even what was in their milk that they drank that day.

A couple years back, Hovatters Zoo allowed kids to take pictures with their baby animals. However, they received a lot of complaints and as a result the USDA had to come in and inspect each one. Because of the hassle this caused, Hovatters decided to end their baby animal pictures.

“No matter how big or small people’s complaints are, the USDA has to come in and do an inspection. Every time we have had an inspection, we have passed,” Grimm said.

Owning a zoo is not an easy task and it requires many permits and certifications. Hovatter has a business registration certificate, a USDA certification that must always be renewed, a game farm license, a roadside menagerie license and a certification with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

Each animal brought to the zoo from another state must receive a permit, have a disease test and have a health certificate, which comes from the state veterinarian.

West Virginia might not be known for a wealth of exotic and unusual animals, but the state has its share of unconventional critters. Whether it’s a 12-foot python or a domesticated black bear, however, it’s important to remember that wild animals aren’t pets.