Arlington County is one of the few places in the Washington area where residents can raise monkeys, crocodiles or other unusual pets — but that opportunity soon might be put on a leash.
The County Board is considering whether to make it illegal to keep wild and exotic animals — including wolves, coyotes, panthers, bears, lynxes, hedgehogs, tarantulas and any snake longer than four feet — within the 26-square-mile confines of the rapidly urbanizing Northern Virginia suburb.
Arlington residents who already own such critters would be able to keep them, but they would have to register them with the county government.
The idea of tightening the regulations came from animal rights advocates, said county spokesman Kurt Larrick, and from animal control officers who still remember a 2008 incident when exotic snakes got loose in north Arlington and caused a “standoff” with an emergency first responder.
There also was a 2010 incident involving animal control officers and a lemur, Larrick said. Since the 2008 standoff, the county code has barred poisonous reptiles and any type of pig.
Although there are bans on exotic animals in place in Fairfax and Prince William counties, the city of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park, the District and the entire state of Maryland, ownership of such creatures is apparently big business in the United States.
A 2014 National Geographic article said experts believe that more exotic pets live in American homes than are cared for in U.S. zoos.
The magazine cited numerous tragic incidents that have resulted: a Texas 4-year-old was mauled by his aunt’s mountain lion; in Connecticut, a 55-year-old woman’s face was permanently disfigured by a friend’s pet chimpanzee; and in Ohio, an 80-year-old man was attacked by a 200-pound pet kangaroo.
Chelsea Lindsey, spokesperson for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, said her organization supports the proposed pet ban. “We want to keep the county safe, and there are certainly exotic animals that are not safe to own,” she said. “Rather than retroactively bringing in a law after an incident happens, this is a good idea.”
No wild exotic animals have been surrendered to the league’s shelter in recent memory, she said, and it is not clear how many people in Arlington own pets that would be banned under the proposed rules.
On Saturday, the County Board will decide whether to hold a public hearing on March 18 regarding the code change. A staff report on the proposal notes that county laws regulate animal treatment in general but has few prohibitions.
“Therefore, large reptiles and monkeys, for example, can now be kept in Arlington homes. These and other wild and exotic animals, along with snakes over four feet in length, can be difficult to handle and can exhibit unpredictable, aggressive behavior toward humans and other species,” the report says.
Prohibiting them, the report adds, would protect residents and animals from harm or mistreatment. No such ban on exotic animals exists in Loudoun County or Alexandria, Arlington officials say.
Adam Roberts, chief executive of Born Free, an organization that advocates keeping wildlife in the wild, applauded Arlington’s proposal.
“The exotic pets problem is pervasive from coast to coast,” he said, adding that there are more tigers in American homes than in the wild around the world. “If animals escape or if animals attack or if animals are confiscated, it becomes a public problem to address.”
Roberts pointed to Ohio, which cracked down on exotic pets after the release in 2011 of 56 animals from the private Muskingum County Animal Farm by their owner, who then killed himself. It took authorities days to find and kill the animals.
Larrick, the county government spokesman, noted that “traditional pets are still more than welcome and adored in Arlington.” But for them, too, the rules must be followed.
The proposal before the county board would lower the age at which dogs have to be licensed with the county from 6 months to 4 months. Cats, as well as common aquarium and small-cage animals, still would not need to be licensed.