UPDATE: House lawmakers declined to adopt that would make it illegal to possess "dangerous wild animals."
FRANKLIN — Debbie Jeter unlocked the chain-link fence door and stepped inside.
Less than 10 feet away was a 450-pound brown bear. The only thing separating the two was an electric current designed to stun the animal. She exited the cage unharmed.
“Every time I go in there my heart races 99 miles per hour,” said Jeter, whose lifelong dream of running her own zoo is under new scrutiny in wake of a nightmarish scene three months ago in central Ohio.
There, authorities gunned down dozens of dangerous animals that their owner had released shortly before committing suicide. The incident galvanized debate over whether people like Jeter should be allowed to keep exotic animals.
Prodded by animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, lawmakers nationwide are pushing legislation they hope will address what critics say are gaping loopholes that allow backyard menageries to flourish.
As owner and operator of Bear Path Acres Zoo and Animal Education Center, Jeter has a legislative agenda too. It would require training people who want to own big cats, primates and other exotics.
“It’s a major problem,” Jeter said. “Making it illegal isn’t the answer.”
A haven for menageries
There are at least eight zoos in Virginia — not counting municipal zoos in Norfolk, Richmond and other cities — with primates, big cats or other exotic animals, according to Department of Agriculture records.
None are as large as Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, Ohio, where 56 exotic animals were freed from cages and pens.
The eight zoos have lions, elephants, primates, large reptiles and other dangerous animals. Often set in remote areas, they’re generally staffed by one or two people.
Bear Path is located on 4.8 acres of rolling cotton fields behind the 19th century house Jeter shares with her husband. Volunteers help them care for and feed more than 100 animals, including a cougar, a black leopard and a tiger.
Many people leave animals at Bear Path after deciding they can no longer provide adequate care, Jeter said.
That’s what happened to Isaac, an adult macaque native to Asia and Africa. Because Virginia does not regulate primates, many people acquire them as pets, she said. Cute and cuddly when young, macaques can turn violent and unpredictable in adulthood. Also, many carry the herpes B virus, which can be deadly to humans.
The bear came from a city zoo that Jeter declined to identify — zookeepers determined it would not mate with the zoo’s male bear, she said.
The tiger, only a few months old and quarantined inside Jeter’s house until its permanent exhibit opens next month, has a different story.
Bred in the United States, it is half Bengal, half Siberian. Separately, both species are endangered and, thus, illegal to possess. Yet when mixed, the tiger isn’t considered endangered.
Jeter said she obtained the cub from someone who bred it and charged the public to take pictures with it — a practice theU.S. Department of Agricultureallows until big cats are 12 weeks old. The cats are often sold on the black market or euthanized afterward, she said.
A patchwork of laws
Bear Path and other menageries concern Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, which rehabilitates native animals. Jeter and others have no business keeping exotic animals, he said.
“There’s a huge public safety issue there,” he said.
Neighbors have complained to the offices of state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, about Bear Path. The zoo is in their districts.
Bear Path’s animals are kept in cages or pens that resemble what zoos used decades ago before exhibits mimicked native conditions. For example, the cougar lives in a steel-barred oval cage about 25 feet tall. During a recent visit, it lithely hopped between two man made platforms and an upright telephone pole, occasionally hissing at two visitors.
In Virginia, a person must wade through a patchwork of local, state and federal laws to own exotic animals. None adequately address the range of animals people can obtain, said Laura Donahue, the Virginia director for the Humane Society of the United States.
For example, a person must get a state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries permit for animals considered predatory or undesirable — such as big cats, wolves and bears — only if the animals are used for educational purposes.
The Humane Society of the United States issued a statement days after the Ohio incident, saying Virginia is “one of the weakest” states in the nation for regulating exotic animals. It listed seven animal escapes or attacks that have occurred since 2003 in Virginia. Among them:
An adult java macaque, a type of monkey, attacked his owners while sharing the same bed in Surry County in May.
A 25-year-old woman was found strangled to death by her pet python in Virginia Beach in 2008.
Authorities killed two Asian black bears after they escaped their enclosure at Natural Bridge Zoo in 2003.
The animal rights group called on Gov. Bob McDonnell to issue an emergency order or otherwise call on his administration to ban exotic animals. The administration is examining the issue, a McDonnell spokesman has said.
Concerns spark proposed laws
A Newport News native, Jeter does not have an academic background. She said she has worked with animals all her life, including time as a veterinarian’s assistant and volunteer at Bluebird Gap Farm in Hampton.
She moved from the Peninsula to Southampton County 11 years ago and began work on Bear Path. The zoo opened in 2008 when she obtained aU.S. Department of Agriculture Class C license to exhibit animals — the same used by municipal zoos and circuses.
Jeter declined to say how many people visit the zoo annually or what the budget is. Farmers, hunters and volunteers bring food for the animals, she said — the bear was eating a deer neck one recent afternoon.
At least one proposed bill in the General Assembly might curtail Bear Path and other zoos.
Working with the Humane Society of the United States, Lucas introduced a bill that would make it “unlawful for any person to possess, sell, transfer or breed a dangerous wild animal” in Virginia. Accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, research facilities and other groups would be exempt, as would people who owned animals prior to July 1, 2012.
Similar measures are under consideration in Ohio and Michigan.
The bill’s affect on Bear Path and similar zoos is not certain. Lucas did not return repeated calls.
Jeter thinks the bill, if approved, will not achieve its stated purpose. Making possession illegal will only steer animals to the black market, where they’re often subject to ill treatment or death, she said. She is drafting legislation that would require training before a person can obtain exotic animals.
It’s the best way forward, she said offering Bear Path as example.
“There are no closed doors here. There are no behind the scenes,” she said. “It’s someone’s having a bad day, you get to see it. If the monkey throws a fit, you get to see it.”