One of the many issues under debate in the North Carolina House this legislative session is what to do about private ownership of dangerous animals. House Bill 554 was filed by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, to ban, among other things, the possession, sale, transfer, and breeding of dangerous animals (wolves, big cats, bears, etc.).

As can happen in law, trying to prevent bad people from doing things that are bad when they do them also would prevent good people from doing the same things, which happen to be good when they do them. Excerpts from a WRAL report capture this:

But the operators of the Conservators Center in Caswell County say they fear the legislation could force them to shut down. The sanctuary is home to 80 animals, including lions and tigers that were brought to the center from across the country after being rescued from abuse.

“We do find it unbelievable that we’re at risk, but if you look at the words of this bill, that is a fact,” said Julia Matson Wagner, assistant director of the Conservators Center. “Unfortunately, the way in which it has been drafted, there are many unintended consequences as a result of language issues.”

Kim Alboum, North Carolina director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill targets individual owners and isn’t meant to prey on places like the Conservators Center.

“First responders could literally walk into a backyard in some of our counties in North Carolina and find a tiger in a dogpen,” Alboum said. “This bill grandfathers current, existing facilities just as long as they register with the county and agree to inspections by animal control and post signs for dangerous animals.”

McGrady also told WRAL the bill wasn’t aimed at groups like the Conservators Center.

Another unintended victim of the bill would be Tregembo Animal Park in Wilmington, which has been in operation since 1952.

The bill would exempt “Institutions accredited or certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” but that is a prohibitive expense for smaller organizations. Conservators and Tregembo are licensed instead by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A brief survey of their USDA compliance reports found no violations in recent years. So they have been doing good things the right way.

A further issue is the grandfathering. Although that would allow the Conservators Center and Tregembo Animal Park to stay in business, they would still fall under the bill’s prohibition of bringing in new animals.

The prohibition against breeding could also imperil the groups — and, in some cases, the animals, when there are limited numbers of their species and conservation efforts are going on.

Those concerns appear to have been addressed in the amended version of the bill that passed the House and been sent to the Senate. The new version includes an exemption for “Institutions holding a valid license issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

Cautionary tale about cronyism

Still, if no harm to good organizations doing good is done here, the episode is instructive about the unwieldy nature of law. I also see a cautionary tale about cronyism here.

It wouldn’t take much for, for example, a big organization (a zoo, in this instance) to put forth this seemingly benign idea that includes consequences unintended by well-intending lawmakers but quite intended by the big organization to put their competition out of business. This is, after all, how occupational licensing efforts play out in state houses.