‘Lion on the loose’ sparks concerns about exotic pets

By Louis Weisberg and Lisa Neff | Staff writers

At the same time Cecil dominated global news, a mysterious lion caught the attention of Wisconsinites. The Milwaukee Police Department received multiple calls from people reporting a lion-like creature slinking through riverside neighborhoods on the north and east sides of the city. The MPD confirmed that an officer saw some type of animal in a ravine near North 31st Street and West Cameron Avenue.

Authorities — police officers armed with rifles and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agents carrying tranquilizer guns — set up a dragnet, which the animal apparently evaded. Authorities later placed traps.

Police Chief Ed Flynn said it was theoretically possible a wild cat made its way to Milwaukee from northern Wisconsin.

About a week after the initial sighting of the lion in Milwaukee, a similar creature was spotted in Beloit and then in Grafton. Some experts believe the animal is a cougar that found its way into southeastern Wisconsin from the northern plains by traveling along rivers. Human encroachment in the form of everything from farms to shopping centers to residential development has left cougars without adequate areas to hunt for prey.

Sightings of cougars and other wild animals have become common in big cities as far east as New York. The police shooting of a cougar near Skokie, Illinois, sparked outrage several years ago. Chicagoans were amused in 2007 when a coyote wandered into a downtown sub shop and plopped itself into a cooler for a nap.

Reports of the MKE Lion mostly made Milwaukeeans giddy, far more amused than panicked.

The animal got its own Twitter account — @Milwaukee_Lion — and rapidly gained followers, including Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the MPD, Visit Milwaukee, the city of Milwaukee and Pounce Panther, the mascot for the Milwaukee Panthers.

The Stone Creek Cafe sold cookies decorated with a lion, designers started selling variations of “I Survived #MKELion” T-shirts and the Milwaukee County Zoo, in a tweet, joked, “We’re not sure what’s running around the city, but all of our lions are safe and sound.”

The Milwaukee sightings caught the attention of international newspapers and news networks. A promotion for an episode of NBC’s Today, said, “FBI director declares ISIS a bigger threat than Al Qaeda, Trump prepares to visit the border and latest on search for MKE Lion.”

The MPD, in a news release about the Milwaukee lion, said, “It remains a possibility that the cat is an escaped exotic pet and, with all of the media attention, the owner is reluctant to come forward.”

Moving against exotic pets

Jill Carnegie of Kings Sanctuary and Retreat in Wisconsin feels certain the animal is a mountain lion and that it had been a pet. She said she has been on standby with Milwaukee County Animal Control and “if there is a happy ending to this story the cat will live out its days here at the sanctuary.”

“It is a mountain lion, and I can tell it was a pet that was released, possibly from gun violence in Milwaukee,” Carnegie said. “If the owner was killed, others could have turned it loose. Or it escaped or the owner could no longer care for it.”

Milwaukee has an ordinance prohibiting people from keeping animals known to attack or injure people or domestic animals. But Wisconsin is one of six states where keeping a big cat — a lion-like animal — as a pet is not against the law. Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia also lack state regulations against exotic pet ownership.

Last year, state Rep. Warren Petryk, a Republican from Eleva, pushed for a ban on the breeding and possession of exotic animals, including big cats.

Petryk cited a number of incidents in Wisconsin, including the confiscation of a baboon in a basement in Dane County, the discovery of an alligator in an apartment in Beloit and the injury of a child bit by a lion cub at a pet store in Baraboo.

The bill had the backing of multiple animal welfare groups, including Born Free and The Humane Society of the United States, but it did not gain legislative traction.

This year, state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, is pushing a bill that would prohibit people from owning dangerous exotic animals, including lions, tigers, polar bears, gorillas and alligators.

“Wisconsin is becoming a magnet for people who want to open a roadside zoo,” said Melissa Tedrowe, Wisconsin state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “We do know there are crocodiles and cheetahs and boa constrictors and tigers in people’s homes. When they get too large, they get released.”

Tedrowe is confidant that Wanggaard will get his bill passed. 

“Sen. Wanggaard is a very strong and respected legislator,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the bill that comes forward is robust and does not include exceptions.”

In a memo seeking co-sponsors for his bill, Wanggaard said that the measure was inspired by the Milwaukee lion hunt, as well as a 2013 incident in which police and the Racine Zoological Society discovered nearly half-a-dozen rattlesnakes, two alligators, a crocodile, an alligator, a snapping turtle and a Gila monster in a Kenosha residence. The senator said escaped exotic pets tax limited municipal resources and put emergency responders and citizens in danger.

“These animals pose a significant threat to the safety of Wisconsin residents,” Wanggaard, a former police officer, wrote in the memo. “This is common sense legislation that will keep citizens, law enforcement, and emergency responders safe.”

State residents need a license from the DNR to possess a wild animal that’s native to Wisconsin. But they can own non-native animals such as a lion without a license, unless the animal is endangered or threatened or has been deemed a harmful wild animal, such as a cougar or bear, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Wanggaard’s bill would prohibit the private possession, propagation and sale of dangerous exotic animals, including nonnative big cats such as lions and tigers; nonnative bears, including brown bears, panda bears and polar bears; apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees and gibbons; and crocodilians, including alligators, crocodiles and caimans. Vets, zoos, circuses, and federally licensed research facilities and wildlife sanctuaries could still legally possess such creatures.

People who own exotic animals would be allowed to keep the creatures if they register the animals with their municipality. They would have to inform police if their animals escape.

Karen Sparapani, executive director of the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, which is working to capture the creature roaming Milwaukee, said she hadn’t seen the bill but supports banning private possession of large mammals.

“Most people with exotic animals, especially smaller reptiles, are responsible,” Sparapani said. “But it’s these large mammals regular people can’t provide a quality of life to. They’re simply being born for people’s vanity and that’s wrong.”

Meanwhile, MPD urged the public not to intervene in attempts to capture any lion on the loose in southeast Wisconsin: “As the media draws more attention to this story, it also appears that people are willing to take greater risks to find the animal on their own. The public is asked not to endanger themselves and to leave it to wildlife experts to photograph or capture the cat.”

A civilian who tried to intervene in the hunt shot a pit bull he mistook for a lion.

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