Toronto Is Cracking Down on Therapy Capybaras

The city is looking into its many travelling zoos.

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May 1 2017, 7:06pm

Image: globe_design_studio/Shutterstock

Toronto is a zoo, literally. In the past few years, we've had a monkey in a shearling coat roaming around IKEA, a caiman swimming free in High Park, and a runaway capybara couple. Lately, exotic animals—including kinkajous, fancy chickens, and (yes) capybaras—have been trotted out to universities and seniors' homes as a sort of therapy dog to provide soothing comfort.

It isn't legal to keep these as pets in the city, but mobile zoos and exotic animal businesses can provide the service to those who request it. Now Toronto has decided to look into the existing regulations around prohibited animals that Torontonians can't keep as pets, including bears, skunks, mongooses and kiwis.

They've asked city dwellers to fill out a survey in an effort to start a public discussion around plans to update the current prohibited animals list, as well as other regulations around using exotic animals in educational programming and special events.

There's currently a $240 fine that comes with citizens keeping exotic animals as pets. But private travelling zoos have been operating with almost zero regulation in Toronto, said Camille Labchuk, the executive director of Animal Justice, an organization comprised of animal rights lawyers. "The city is realizing that this is a problem for animal welfare and public safety." A Canadian Press investigation in 2016 suggested mobile zoos like this are on the rise.

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Labchuk said that there's a reason these animals, including kangaroos and skunks, are on the prohibited list: because they don't do well in captivity.

"Exotic animals carry with them an extreme public safety risk [of] diseases passing from animals to humans," she said. "Turtles, for example, carry salmonella."

She pointed out that domesticated animals, like cats, dogs and birds, could work just as well to relieve stress as eagle-owls and capybaras.

As of July 1, prohibited animals will not be allowed for educational programs, including travelling reptile zoos, or exotic animals visiting birthday parties and seniors' homes, said Fiona Venedam, a supervisor with Toronto Animal Services.

The city is working on how to handle cases of owners who could potentially see their pets end up on the prohibited list, said Venedam. According to her, "this may include grandfathering individual possession if necessary as long as they do not present a risk to public health and safety, public nuisance, or risk to the animal's welfare."

By public nuisance, Venedam means: Does the animal constantly get out? What's it's natural habitat? And how does it treat other animals?

In terms of regulating travelling zoos, Venedam said the city is considering imposing liability insurance, requirement for downtimes, and regular animal inspections.

She said that this query encourages feedback from the public and that it will be considered in the report, which will stop accepting responses at noon on May 5.

A public meeting is being held Monday night to discuss the city's plan.

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