COLUMBIA, S.C. — Oh, my. South Carolina will no longer allow lions, tigers and bears to be pets.
A new law, effective Jan. 1, makes it illegal to own a "large wild cat, non-native bear or great ape." That leaves just four states — Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin — without rules against keeping dangerous wild animals as pets, according to the Humane Society.
It's unclear how many of the beasts are currently in someone's back yard because no one tracks it.
Officials guess there are fewer than a hundred such pets statewide, said Rep. David Hiott, chairman of the House Agriculture, Natural Resources & Environmental Affairs Committee, which advanced the legislation.
"There's no way to really know," said Hiott, a Republican from Pickens. "We had reports of people owning these animals at their house and no one knowing they're there."
Charles Ruth with the state Department of Natural Resources remembers pursuing a cougar for several days in 1996 that turned out to be an escaped pet — declawed and collared. But authorities didn't realize that until after a Marion County deputy shot it. Fortunately, the cougar's only victim was a goat.
Beyond the goat, no death in South Carolina has been attributed to a wild pet.
But there have been at least 10 other cases since 1991 of bears, big cats or primates getting loose and/or injuring someone, according to the Humane Society's state chapter.
Those known incidents, documented by news reports, include a 21-year-old woman who had to undergo surgery on her hand and arm in 2009 after she tried to pet a relative's caged bear in Pickens County. In 2002, an Easley family's pet tiger bit an 8-year-old boy in the leg after getting bathed. In 1991, a 250-pound pet lion escaped from its cage and burst into a home, attacking a 5-year-old girl, who needed stitches to her neck and chest.
In 2002, a Lexington County woman was fined $465 after her two lions ran loose for 45 minutes. No one was injured.
"We want to prevent anything that might have happened in the future," Hiott said.
The bill sailed through the Legislature, and Gov. Henry McMaster signed it last month without fanfare.
Any such pet owned before Jan. 1 is grandfathered. Their owners can keep the animal until it dies, provided they register it with local authorities and pay a $500 one-time fee and $100 every subsequent year — per address, not pet. Also, each pet's accommodations must comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Without the grandfather clause, "there's the problem of what do we do with the animals already owned?" said Kim Kelly, director of the Humane Society in South Carolina.
She applauds the law, calling it a "good first step in protecting public safety."
The Humane Society wanted more species included, such as all primates. Great apes are limited to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.
The law defines "large wild cats" as lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, and cheetahs.
It exempts federally licensed zoos, circuses, research facilities, handlers and exhibitors.
"It doesn't do anything to us who have federal oversight and have regular inspections by government veterinarians," said Bhagavan Antle, founder and director of T.I.G.E.R.S., which stands for The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species.
He pushed for the law, partly to stem any effort to ban businesses like his.
The preamble of the bill, sponsored mainly by Myrtle Beach-area Republicans, recognizes Antle's "pre-eminent wildlife preserve" as a top tourist attraction.
Antle said about 10,000 people yearly tour the 50-acre Myrtle Beach Safari, while 4 million annually visit Preservation Station at a large retail complex in North Myrtle Beach.
Antle said he primarily wanted to counteract the notion that tigers are bred in back yards across America. He contends that's propaganda by animal rights groups and hurting international efforts to save the endangered species.
"South Carolina was laying out there like a sore thumb without regulation," he said. "In America, there are virtually no pet tigers."