You don’t have to be a geneticist to know species need genetic diversity. That’s the key practical reason why most societies forbid incest. European kings and queens often married first cousins, and that helped spread hemophilia throughout the royal families of Europe.
Well, that’s at least as true of zoo animals. There are genetic records -- stud books, they are sometimes called – and what are called Species Survival Plans.
If the Detroit Zoo wanted to breed lions, for example, they might be directed by AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to mate their lioness with a lion in San Francisco, say, to get the greatest possible genetic diversity in the offspring.
That’s one reason you don’t want your neighbor deciding he is going to buy some lions and tigers, start a roadside zoo, and begin breeding them. There’s also another, perhaps more compelling reason; it just isn’t safe. You can, to some extent, “tame” a lion cub, though that to an extent outrages the animal’s true nature. But you cannot domesticate them.
They are ticking time bombs, and often good at escaping. Once upon a time, we had responsible politicians who understood this. Eighteen years ago, the Michigan Legislature passed the Large Carnivore Act of 2000, which was designed to protect both the well-being of the animals and the public by restricting the keeping and breeding of them to facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Sanctuaries.
But the bill had one fatal flaw. A drafting error – call it an elaborate typo – that screwed everything up. Ron Kagan, the longtime CEO of the Detroit Zoo, told me it was supposed to exempt accredited zoos from laws forbidding “holding, breeding and transferring large carnivores,” but instead it accidentally referred to a different section.
When that was noticed, you might have expected the lawmakers would come back the next week and fix it. But this is the Michigan Legislature. It’s been 18 years, and it still hasn’t been fixed. That, Kagan told me “technically prevents AZA-accredited zoos in Michigan from breeding large carnivores and contributing to the conservation of endangered species.”
Now, State Rep. Thomas Albert, a Republican from near Ionia, has offered a bill that would make things worse. House Bill 5778 would pretty much allow anyone to apply to the Department of Agriculture for a permit to breed large carnivores.
That’s what controversial roadside zoos like Oswald’s Bear Ranch have wanted. The law, Kagan told me, would technically not allow me to sell the tigers I was breeding to people who thought one would be cute to have around the house, but it wouldn’t set up any enforcement mechanism, perhaps because doing so would cost the taxpayers a lot.
Kagan, who went to Lansing to talk to the legislature about this, said he asked one lawmaker, “Do you want your neighbor to have a lion and a tiger?”
Taken aback, the legislator said "No!"
But that’s what would happen. Here’s a crazy idea. I suggest a sensible lawmaker immediately draft a bill just fixing the mistake in the old one, and gets his colleagues to pass it.
Let’s fix the problem first. Later, the lawmakers can debate whether they really want to let me start a kennel to breed crack house lions.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.