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Critics: Proposed bill limiting exotic pet ownership in Wisconsin falls short of goal

Thirty minutes outside the Wisconsin Dells’ maze of flumes, rollercoasters, go-kart tracks and the duck boats plying the Wisconsin River, Jasmine is something of a minor local celebrity.

“I go to the pharmacy at ShopKo here in town and (people are) always, ‘Where’s Jasmine? Bring her in to see us!’” said her caretaker, Melanie Nawrot, 36, whose small capuchin monkey lives with her family in the city of Adams. “We go on the lake with her, a lot of 4-H clubs and Boy Scouts come and see her.”

Jasmine has been under the care of Nawrot since she was two days old after being rejected by her mother. Jasmine, who could live to be 45 years old, might outlive her, and Narwot said she has made provisions for the family’s pet in her will.

But Jasmine is also a wild animal. Owning a monkey, or almost any other nonnative animal species, is currently legal in Wisconsin. It is among five states — Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina are the others — that have no bans on owning “dangerous” exotic animals.

A bipartisan measure making its way through the state Legislature would change that. Senate Bill 241 would ban ownership, breeding and sale of  “dangerous” exotic animals, including non-native big cats, non-native bears, apes and crocodilians. A companion measure, Assembly Bill 333, also has been introduced.

Exotic pets not affected by the proposal include venomous snakes and constrictors, monkeys (including baboons) and marsupials, such as kangaroos.

Current owners of banned pets, such as tigers, lions and chimpanzees, would be allowed to keep their animals under the bill. Veterinarians, accredited and municipal zoos, circuses, federally licensed research facilities and wildlife sanctuaries also would be exempt, as would Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

Owners who violate the law would be subject to a $1,000 fine. If a dangerous exotic pet caused property damage or attacked someone, the owner could face a $2,000 fine.

The ban would not affect Melanie Nawrot or Jasmine, nor would it prohibit Nawrot from keeping her other exotic pets — a ring-tailed lemur and a pair of marmosets, another type of monkey.

And, as far as Nawrot can tell, SB 241 also would not immediately threaten Monkey Mommy LLC, the business through which she breeds, sells and offers monkeys for hire at special events and educational programs. Nawrot holds a dealer’s license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nonetheless, Nawrot opposes the legislation. She said local governments in Wisconsin can and sometimes do pass their own regulations, and that is good enough.

“I personally think we’ve been doing a really good job in Wisconsin with exotic animal owners,” she said, adding, “Why fix something that’s not broken?” 

Bill, changes debated

SB 241, proposed by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, was the subject of a hearing Oct. 1. The most passionate testimony centered on a not-yet-introduced amendment that some argued would weaken the bill.

The amendment would remove a provision that forbids members of the public from coming into direct contact with dangerous exotics, and exempt members of the Zoological Association of America as well as people and facilities licensed by the USDA.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported in August about lax and fragmented oversight of exotic animal owners in Wisconsin, including by the USDA.

Three of the 15 speakers testified against the bill, including the executive director of the ZAA, the park director of Wisconsin’s only ZAA-accredited zoo, and a nonprofit reptile rescue and educational group. Out of those three, both ZAA-affiliated speakers said they would support the legislation if the amendment were added.

The 12 speakers testifying in favor of the bill included the owner of a big cat rescue organization, a wildlife rehabilitator, a veterinary assistant, animal advocates and zoo directors.

Even some proponents warned, however, that the measure contains loopholes that would make enforcement difficult. Some also told the committee that the proposed changes would gut the bill, leaving the state’s lenient approach to exotic animals largely intact. One speaker, Renee Benell of Fitchburg, questioned why other species such as snakes and monkeys were not included in the ban.

Dean Collins, Brookfield’s assistant police chief, told lawmakers the law would be “unenforceable” because it does not authorize officers to arrest owners who violate it. Collins also said unless the bill is amended to create a statewide database of animals, authorities will not be able to determine the owners of animals that escape or are released.

The amendment to exempt certain licensees and allow public contact with dangerous exotics has not been formally introduced yet, said Valirie Maxim, a Wanggaard staffer. The senator’s chief of staff, Scott Kelly, said the bill likely will get a vote near the end of October in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Wanggaard has said the measure was partially inspired by reports of a lion-like creature near Milwaukee, thought to be an escaped or released exotic pet and a 2013 incident in which police and the Racine Zoo discovered rattlesnakes, alligators, crocodiles, a snapping turtle and a Gila monster in a Kenosha home.

Push for stricter bill

Melissa Tedrowe, the Wisconsin state director for the Humane Society of the United States, attended the hearing and said she hopes to work with lawmakers to refine elements of SB 241, particularly its grandfather clause.

Under the bill, people who owned dangerous exotic animals at the time the bill went to effect could keep their pets, but would be required to pay a fee and register the animals with their municipality. Enforcement of the law would be the responsibility of local governments, and owners would be required to notify local authorities if their dangerous exotic pet escaped.

Tedrowe recommended that in cases in which existing exotic pets are grandfathered in, Wisconsin lawmakers should require owners to have a minimum five acres of land, have at least two years’ experience caring for such an animal or pass a written exam on caring for the species.

Tedrowe also said lawmakers should require exotic pet owners exempted under the grandfather clause to carry liability insurance in case the animal harms anyone or causes damage. In addition, she suggested any owner of a “dangerous” exotic pet be at least 21 years old and that all such pets be microchipped “unless a veterinarian says it’s not a good idea.”

Chuck Wikenhauser, director of the Milwaukee County Zoo, said in an interview that he was surprised to find out lawmakers were already considering an amendment. On behalf of all five Wisconsin zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Wikenhauser testified in favor of the bill but against the proposed amendment to allow people to come in contact with the animals and exempt those with licenses from the USDA or accreditation through the ZAA.

“A lot of roadside zoos or zoos that are less than adequate as far as their ability to manage animals with modern zoological standards have USDA licenses, and it doesn’t necessarily qualify them or make them prime candidates to home some of these dangerous exotic animals,” Wikenhauser said.

The Milwaukee zoo belongs to the AZA, an organization that Wikenhauser, who chairs the group’s accreditation commission, said has been the professional standard recognized by the federal and state governments for many years. Members of that organization, including the Racine Zoo (Wanggaard is a board member), are already exempt under SB 241.

But Zoological Association of America executive director Alan Smith, who opposes the bill unless it is amended, said in an email that “there are really no important differences” in terms of animal welfare and public safety between facilities accredited by the two associations. The ZAA lists Wildwood Wildlife Park and Nature Center in Minocqua, which is also licensed by the USDA, as its only Wisconsin member.

But Wikenhauser said broadening the exemption “waters down the bill.”

“If (the bill) is amended to include all of that,” he said, “I don’t think it’s going to accomplish what (lawmakers) had hoped it would.”

This is the latest installment in the series “Exotic and exploited?”, which examines Wisconsinites’ relationships with exotic animals and efforts to regulate them. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Banned or not banned?

Senate Bill 241 and Assembly Bill 333 would ban the breeding, sale and ownership of certain

“dangerous” exotic animals in Wisconsin in some instances. But some dangerous animals are already banned, and others would be allowed under the measure.

Would be banned: “Dangerous” exotic animals

Lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, Sunda clouded leopards, cheetahs, big cat hybrids, Asiatic black bears, brown bears, polar bears, sloth bears, sun bears, giant panda bears, spectacled bears, bear hybrids, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gibbons, alligators, crocodiles and caimans could not be kept as pets.

Already banned: Wildlife native to Wisconsin

Under existing state law, native wildlife, species deemed “harmful,” and endangered or threatened species cannot be kept as pets. The list of species currently banned include white-tailed deer, mink, badgers, wild and feral swine, cougars, black bears, raccoon, weasels, striped skunk, Canadian lynx, gray wolves, bobcats, red foxes and Northern river otters.

Not banned: Other exotic animals

Boa constrictors, anacondas, ball pythons, capuchin monkeys, marmosets, baboons, mandrills, macaques, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, chameleons, iguanas, geckos, bearded dragons, sugar gliders, chinchillas, lemurs, sloths, kangaroos, wallabies and zebras could continue to be kept as pets.

‘Lion on the loose’ sparks concerns about exotic pets

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.

On the Web …

Cecil’s death spotlights damage of trophy hunting.

Cecil’s death spotlights damage of trophy hunting

Large animals have always held humans in thrall. Cave drawings, among the earliest examples of human art, commonly feature figures of bison, horses, aurochs (an extinct wild ox) and giant deer. Nature TV programs and zoos are more popular than ever, and the biggest and rarest animals are always the star attractions.

Lions, elephants and other “charismatic megafauna,” as they are known, draw nature tourists from all over the globe to Africa, where they pump millions into economies that badly need it.

But there’s a dark side to human interest. The majority of megafauna that inhabited the world when humans appeared has gone extinct.

Early humans needed the flesh and skins of large animals to survive. But now such hunts are thrill kills, such as the brutal slaying of Cecil, a black-maned lion that was not only the star attraction at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, but also part of an Oxford University study to save African lions from extinction.

In fact, Cecil’s fate was discovered by the GPS device on the collar he wore as part of that project.

Hit with the double whammy of habitation loss and wealthy hunters who’ve paid up to $1 million for the privilege of killing rare, exotic animals, African lions are in steep decline. Only about 20,000 of them remain in the wild today, down from 200,000 in the 1960s. Activists are pressuring the U.S. government to place the African lion on the endangered species list.

Elephants and rhinos are faring even worse than lions. There is only one male great white rhino left in the world, and he’s under 24-hour guard.

Unfortunately, in the world of trophy hunters, the rarer a species becomes, the more hunters are willing to pay for the thrill of killing it.

Cecil’s slaughter

Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer reportedly paid two guides $55,000 to lure Cecil from the Hwange National Park — a preserve. Palmer, who did not have a license for the hunt, then shot Cecil with a crossbow. He tracked the wounded, suffering lion for 40 hours before shooting, decapitating and skinning it for “trophies,” the euphemism hunters use for remains of their quarry.

Cecil — large, exotically beautiful and bestowed with a human name — captured the world’s fascination. His clandestine killing by a rich American sparked global outrage. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement that he should be extradited to Zimbabwe, where he should be charged, tried, convicted and “preferably, hanged.”

Forced to shutter his dental practice and close his social media accounts, which featured numerous pictures of Palmer holding the corpses of large and sometimes endangered species, Palmer went into hiding. As of press time, Zimbabwe was trying to extradite him to face poaching charges. One man in Zimbabwe faces criminal charges for helping Palmer kill the lion and another was detained but later released.

The Safari Club International, which promotes big-game hunting, suspended Palmer’s membership and called for a full and thorough investigation. The organization, in a statement to the press, said, “Those who intentionally take wildlife illegally should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent allowed by law.”

There were calls for Minnesota’s board of dentistry to revoke Palmer’s license for conduct unbecoming his profession.

Protesters created a shrine for Cecil at the entryway to Palmer’s office and carried signs reading, “Let the hunter be hunted.”

“The man disgusts me,” said protester Jenna Blunt of Minneapolis. “I hope his life is ruined, that he’s miserable for the rest of his days.”

Cecil wasn’t Palmer’s first illegal kill. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services after killing a black bear in Wisconsin outside the authorized hunting zone, according to court documents. Palmer was sentenced to probation for a year and ordered to pay a fine of nearly $3,000.

“It seems like Wisconsin let him off easy,” said Madison animal rights advocate James Harris, who has protested hunting in Wisconsin. “I think the state could do more to protect its wildlife and prosecute illegal hunting.”

Palmer had other ethical baggage. He paid $127,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a woman who once worked as a receptionist for his dental practice. “Karma’s a bitch,” she said when asked by reporters about Palmer.

Good from tragedy

In the wake of Cecil’s slaughter, numerous airlines, pressured by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people, announced they would no longer transport the remains of big game animals.

President Barack Obama recently issued a ban on the importation of elephant ivory, and activists called on the United States to go further and ban bringing “big game trophies” into the nation.

But experts fear the killings are unstoppable. Shortly after Cecil’s slaughter, it was revealed that another American doctor — a gynecologist — had illegally slaughtered a lion on the Hwange preserve in April. The thirst for Western dollars in countries where money is hard to come by will always provide an entry point for rich, determined hunters.

Some African officials argue that the large fees paid by hunters to kill the animals are put back into local conservation efforts to save imperiled species. 

But in many such hunts, only the guides and landowners pocket money. And given the corruption in many African nations, only an estimated 3 to 5 percent of revenues from trophy hunting is shared with local communities, according to studies. What money does find its way back to the people pales in comparison to the renewable revenue brought in by wildlife enthusiasts who visit the continent to watch and photograph the animals. Those non-violent safaris bring billions of dollars to Africa in a sustainable way.

Kenya, for example, banned trophy hunting and saw a rise in ecotourism as a result. Kenya’s success encouraged Botswana to also change its trophy hunting policies.

Zimbabwe imposed a moratorium on lion hunts amid the outrage over Cecil’s death, but lifted it 10 days later.

Cecil’s death has not been in vain. It shined a spotlight on trophy hunting and helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, whose researchers were tracking Cecil’s movements.

More than $150,000 was donated within 24 hours after Jimmy Kimmel made a tearful plea on his late-night TV show for funding to assist WildCRU’s conservation efforts. A pair of U.S. philanthropists vowed to help the Oxford researchers raise over 1 million in U.S. dollars.

Even plans to raise funds with a Cecil the lion Beanie Baby are in the works.

“We have to seize this moment where we can all make a difference,” American philanthropist Tom Kaplan said in a statement, adding that if the “death of Cecil can lead to the saving of many more lions, then some good can come from tragedy.”

WiG reporter Lisa Neff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

On the Web …

Read about the #MKE Lion here.


Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer sought in illegal slaughter of Cecil, a protected and beloved lion, in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean police said Tuesday they are searching for American tourist Water Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who allegedly shot a beloved, protected lion known as Cecil with a crossbow in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others.  A petition calling for justice for the lion has topped more than 332,000 signatures. (Sign petition demanding justice for Cecil.)

Authorities on Tuesday said two Zimbabwean men will appear in court for allegedly helping lure the lion outside of its protected area to kill it. The American faces poaching charges, according to police spokeswoman Charity Charamba.

The American allegedly paid $50,000 to hunt the lion, Zimbabwean conservationists said, though the hunter and is local partners maintain they didn’t know the lion they killed was protected.

Palmer, a Minnesota dentists, was identified on Tuesday by both the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe as the American hunter, a name that police then confirmed. 

This was not the first time that Palmer, an avid hunter, has run afoul of the law in his pursuit of big game. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin outside of the authorized hunting zone, according to court documents.

“We arrested two people and now we are looking for Palmer in connection with the same case,” Charamba said.

Emmanuel Fundira, the president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, said at a news conference that Palmer’ current whereabouts were unknown.

Palmer issued a statement saying he was unaware that the lion was so well known and part of a study.

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” he said, maintaining that to his knowledge, everything about the hunt had been legal.

Attempts to reach Palmer, 55, at his two listed home numbers and his office by phone and in person were unsuccessful. Palmer’s River Bluff dental practice in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, is shuttered.

This was not the first time Palmer has run afoul of the law in pursuit of his blood sport. The avid hunter pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin outside of the authorized hunting zone, according to court documents.

The two arrested Zimbabwean men — a professional hunter and a farm owner — face poaching charges, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said in a joint statement. Killing the lion was illegal because the farm owner did not have a hunting permit, the joint statement said. The lion was skinned and beheaded. The hunters tried to destroy the lion’s collar, fitted with a tracking device, but failed, the statement said.

If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.

The lion is believed to have been killed on July 1 in western Zimbabwe’s wildlife-rich Hwange region, its carcass discovered days later by trackers, the statement said.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a statement that an American paid the $50,000 for the hunt. During a nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. The American is believed to have shot it with a crossbow, injuring the animal. The wounded, suffering lion was found 40 hours later, and shot dead with a gun, Rodrigues said in the statement. 

Cecil was then skinned and decapitated, presumably so Palmer would have the head — or “trophy” — preserved and mounted on a wall.

“The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs,” said Rodrigues.

The Zimbabwean hunter accused in the case claimed that Cecil was not specifically targeted, and the group only learning after the fact that they had killed a well-known lion, according to the Safari Operators Association.

Cecil, recognizable by his black mane, was being studied by an Oxford University research program, the conservation group said.

Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic mane in the park over the last 13 years, said Lion Aid, also a conservation group.

Associated Press reporters Amy Forliti in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.