The Animal Advisory Commission on Monday voted unanimously to approve a resolution recommending City Council limit public contact with wild animals at for-profit zoos and aquariums.
The idea for the resolution came about at the commission’s February meeting, when members of the public raised concerns about the Austin Aquarium and instances of visitors being injured during interactions with animals at the facility. A draft code amendment appeared before the commission at its June meeting.
The draft ordinance prohibits for-profit zoos and aquariums from allowing “public contact with wild animals,” mandates that any bite or scratch be reported and stipulates that animals in those cases be quarantined for 30 days.
During the June discussion, commissioners raised questions concerning what businesses would be impacted and possibly exempt, what would constitute “public contact” and how it would be enforced, and what specific species should be included in the list.
Commissioner Ann Linder agreed to convene a second working group to both clarify the intent of the ordinance and narrow its scope. At the commission’s July 10 meeting, Linder presented the updated language to the commission.
A second version of the draft ordinance includes an expanded Section 6, which defines for-profit zoos and aquariums.
According to the draft language, a for-profit zoo or aquarium is defined as “an entity or individual who (1) exhibits any animals to the public for compensation and (2) is not described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of the United States and currently exempt from taxation under 501(a) of that Code.”
The language includes carnivals, circuses and zoos exhibiting animals. It excludes retail pet stores, county fairs, pet owners, livestock shows, rodeos, dog and cat shows “and other fairs or exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences,” the draft reads.
“In the next section, we’ve updated the definition from public interaction to public contact to try to make this a little less vague and more specific,” Linder said. “Previously, it defined interaction to mean direct physical contact or proximity where contact is possible. We tried to tailor that down so it’s not so broad as simply being near an animal.”
The updated language defines public contact as “any form of direct physical contact such as touching or handling an animal as well as interacting with an animal in close proximity and without a physical barrier, such that direct physical contact between the animal and members of the public is possible.”
The updated version also expands the definition of wild animal to mean “species, including each individual of a species, that normally lives in a state of nature and is not ordinarily domesticated. This definition applies to species whether they are native to Texas or not,” the draft reads. “This definition applies to individuals regardless of the individuals’ origins, including captive bred as well as wild caught animals. For the purposes of this section, ‘wild animal’ includes any member of the phylum Chordata, with the exception of fish, as well as any species of octopus from the phylum Mollusca.”
Linder addressed a concern that the proposed ordinance might limit the operation of petting zoos by barring reptiles or other animals currently used in their programming.
“I think that’s correct that this would allow for petting zoos, and it potentially would even allow for those people to have those animals present so long as they were not able to interact directly with the public through direct contact,” Linder said. “But I think one of the reasons that it’s important to keep reptiles on this list and amphibians, as well, is because at its core … this is a public health ordinance.
“Those groups of animals that I mentioned, from a disease standpoint, carry some of highest rates of bacterial pathogens, in particular salmonella, which is a particular concern when you have young children who are touching the animals, touching their face, touching their food in these kinds of circumstances.”
Photo: Still from the Animal Advisory Commission meeting showing injuries reportedly caused by a lemur at the Austin Aquarium.
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