published Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Tenn. agency rules with iron fist to end wildlife adoptions, some say (with video)

  • photo
    Tisha Morgan and her husband Steve Morgan raised two pet raccoons "Opossum" and "Dudley" despite it being illegal to have raccoons as pets in Tennessee.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

Animals seized, 2009 - 2013

Turtles: 118

Snakes: 98

Raccoons: 23

Alligators: 6

Deer: 6

Coyotes: 5

Squirrels: 4

Skunks: 2

Vultures: 2

Bobcats: 1

Quaker Parakeets: 1

Dudley loved his pacifier. His sister Opossum loved vanilla ice cream.

And every day the 2-year-olds sat on the couch with stuffed animals and watched "How The Grinch Stole Christmas."

At night, when they couldn't sleep, they'd crawl up into Tisha Morgan's bed and nuzzle into her face. She would lull them back to sleep with a bottle of warm infant formula.

"That's just how much babies they were," said Morgan, who was given the two raccoons in the spring of 2012.

But those tender moments are gone now.

Last October, while Morgan was out of town, seven state wildlife officers and a Polk County officer entered her opulent, 11,000-square-foot home in Delano, Tenn., and took the animals. A woman who rents a room from the Morgans and was home at the time said the officers were wearing bulletproof vests and "combat pants."

The raccoons were taken to a veterinarian, who euthanized them. Then, in accordance with standard procedure, the vet said, he removed their brains so they could be sent to Knoxville to be tested for rabies. The tests came back negative.

"I hit the floor; I was squalling," Morgan said of the day she returned home to find the raccoons gone and "The Grinch" still playing on the TV. "They were like my children."

The raid was spawned by a tip from Morgan's former housekeeper, who told state wildlife officials the raccoons had attacked her. The same woman is now entangled in a legal battle with the family over the raccoons and is suing for $600,000.

The former employee said the animals left her with post-traumatic stress and panic attacks.

Several months later, Morgan won't let the new housekeeper wipe the paw prints from the breakfast nook window, where the raccoons used to peer out to the backyard. Her phone is filled with photos and videos of moments like Opossum's first bowl of ice cream. She still has Dudley's doll-sized baseball cap and his pacifier, with its half-shredded nipple.

Lorane McCarty, of Powell, Tenn., has felt the same pain. Two summers ago, she and her husband adopted a fawn that was injured and appeared motherless.

They fed him apples and gave him a blanket to sleep on the porch. McCarty taught him tricks in the front yard.

"I'd say, 'Come on Buddy, jump on my back,'" she said. "He was something else; everybody loved him."

But the wildlife agents came for Buddy, too. One afternoon last year, men with guns came to her home and gave her and her husband an ultimatum: Sign Buddy away, or have him taken by order of seizure. McCarty gave up the deer, and an incident report written by one of the officers says that they euthanized the deer shortly after taking it from McCarty's home.

"They just took him straight out and killed him," McCarty said.

•••

It's a human impulse to bond with animals, even wild ones. They can appear so loyal, so doting, so loving. And then there is the soft fur and the big eyes.

It's easy to ignore their teeth. It's easy to ignore their diseases, their nature.

So in Tennessee there's an agency that exists, in part, to protect us from ourselves. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency aims to keep people and dangerous animals separated from one another.

Yet Morgan, McCarty and others describe the TWRA as an agency out of control, overzealous in its efforts to seize animals that seemingly pose no danger to anyone. In the past five years, TWRA officers have taken at least 266 animals from residents by confiscating them or telling their owners that they must be surrendered.

While forcing people to give up their pets breaks hearts, the TWRA said keeping people and dangerous animals away from each other is for everyone's safety.

Raccoons can carry rabies, and deer can become territorial as they mature. Even a turtle can be a killer: A child may lick its shell and contract salmonella, the TWRA warns.

  • photo
    Tisha Morgan speaks about her raccoons "Opossum" and "Dudley" that her and her husband raised from babies despite it being illegal to own them in Tennessee.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

"We understand that there's a lot of animals you'll connect with, that you may find that's cute or cuddly, or pretty, and you may feel even sorry for them," said TWRA Officer Joe McSpadden. But, he said, "we try to encourage the public not to approach, not to disturb those animals."

That encouragement can take many forms. Often, when the TWRA finds out that somebody is keeping an outlawed species, officers will simply ask the person to surrender it, either to be taken to a rehabilitation program or zoo, or to be put down. But sometimes search and seizure are their tactics.

Officers will show up unannounced, sometimes in intimidating numbers.

"It was about 7 in the morning. The doorbell rang, my kids were in the bed," said Chad Duggin, of Murfreesboro, who had been keeping an illegal snake.

He opened the door to see several TWRA officers, he said.

Duggin believes that an undercover TWRA officer posing as a reptile dealer had been watching him for months. At the time Duggin was arrested in 2006, the TWRA was carrying out a major undercover push to stop the trafficking of venomous reptiles in Tennessee.

Even though Duggin said his cobra's venom glands had been removed, the snake was still illegal in Tennessee.

Usually people will surrender their animals once they find out that they aren't supposed to have them, according to the TWRA. Handcuffs are rare. Drawn guns are almost unheard of, unless "there were an imminent threat," said Walter Cook, the captive wildlife coordinator at the TWRA. It's his experience, Cook said, that people will say officers were wielding weapons even if they weren't.

"They had guns drawn," Duggin said. "They came straight in, grabbed me, cuffed me."

•••

Because of the way the TWRA keeps records, it's hard to know exactly what happens when officers take animals from people's homes. Generally, they report that they took an animal, but they don't have to record what they do with it, said Cook. In most cases, officers take animals to a rehabilitation center or zoo. Euthanasia, Cook said, is a last resort.

"Other states don't have this extreme regulatory scheme," said Chris Jones, a Chattanooga attorney who specializes in wildlife law. "Tennessee is made fun of, just how Draconian it is."

Jones has likened the TWRA to the Gestapo. Others have called Tennessee's wildlife laws "communist," and the agency that enforces them "over the top."

Here, residents aren't allowed to take any native species from the wild, not even turtles, said David Favre, a professor at the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University College of Law.

Many other states, such as Kentucky and Missouri, have a more moderate approach. Those states allow residents to keep many of the species outlawed in Tennessee.

Snakes, raccoons and turtles are the most common animals that the TWRA takes. They have also taken away people's pet skunks, squirrels and even vultures. The five-year tally of 266 includes a few seizures of large collections of animals, the biggest being the 53 poisonous snakes that the TWRA took from pastor Andrew Hamblin's serpent-handling church in LaFollette last year.

In another high-profile case last year, the TWRA took away YouTube celebrity Mark "Coonrippy" Brown's dancing raccoon, Rebekah.

"Innocent people have been abused by [the TWRA], and it all links to this individual," said Jones the attorney, arguing that Cook, the TWRA gatekeeper to permits, is unfair in his enforcement of the law.

Cook disagrees. He said Tennessee's strict laws and rigid enforcement make its captive wildlife program the best in the country. Sitting in his Nashville office among his hunting trophies -- mounted fish, tail feathers and an antlered skull -- he explained that 23 other states have asked for a copy of Tennessee's laws to help shape their own.

"It lays out in very clear manner what you can and can't do," said Cook. "And not allowing the personal possession of dangerous wildlife is very appealing to most citizens of every state."

•••

Cook has been granting and denying wildlife possession permits for about 20 years. He wouldn't let the Times Free Press photograph him because sometimes he likes to go unrecognized while poking around captive wildlife sites. Generally, Cook gives permits to circuses, zoos and sanctuaries that meet certain requirements, but individuals are denied in almost every circumstance.

It's not just native wildlife that Tennessee is strict about. The state has stringent requirements for keeping exotic wildlife, too. Before a law was enacted in 1991, the public could keep dangerous species, like lions, cougars and leopards, as long as they met certain requirements.

But there were accidents. A little boy's arm was chomped off by a lioness at a home in Knoxville. A 3-foot alligator was found in the Holston River. A 2-year-old girl near Nashville was killed by her father's leopard.

"Her head was crushed like a ripe plum," then-state Sen. Ray Albright, of Chattanooga, told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 1991. He sponsored the bill that tightened captive wildlife laws.

"You ought not have to live next door to someone who has a wolf, a tiger, or a poisonous snake," Albright said.

When your next-door neighbor keeps beasts, the worst can happen, as it did in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011. The small town made global headlines after 50 exotic animals, including lions, tigers, cougars, wolves and bears escaped from someone's personal zoo. The same scenario could have been possible in Tennessee before the 1991 law.

But law or no law, wildlife adoptions aren't likely to stop. Lorane McCarty, who took in Buddy the deer and had raised another deer and seven squirrels before that, said she would do the same thing again.

"I know it's against the law, but, yes, I would [take in another deer]," she said. "If somebody brought one here half dead, I couldn't turn it away."

Morgan, who lost Dudley and Opossum, has put her house in Delano up for sale. She's been fed up with Polk County and Tennessee for a while, and the killing of her raccoons was the last straw.

She plans to move some place where she can rescue and raise wild animals in peace.

"It was a great place to raise kids," Morgan said. "But the TWRA has ruined it."

So far this year, Cook knows of only one person the TWRA has caught keeping an illegal species.

But it's spring now, and baby animals will start showing up. They may appear motherless, even if they aren't, Cook said. And people won't be able to help themselves.

"That's why I refer to this time of year as wildlife kidnapping season," Cook said.

Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at mhmiller@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6324.

about Mary Helen Miller...

Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...

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