Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the council has not formally adopted an ordinance banning ownership of wild animals yet, but council members on Tuesday voted in favor of directing city staff to draft an ordinance that will come back before the council in July. 

A year after the now-infamous zebra cobra escaped from a northwest Raleigh neighborhood, city council members have moved to approve new rules banning the ownership of “dangerous wild animals.”

The new ordinance, adopted in a 5-3 vote Tuesday, will outlaw “inherently dangerous” animals that don’t typically live with people, including lions, tigers, wolves, non-human primates, crocodilians, and “medically significant venomous snakes,” which means snakes whose venom can cause death, serious illness or injury and may require emergency care. 

Current owners of these animals are able to keep their “pets” as long as they comply with new rules of ownership, including registering them with the city. New buyers, however, would face a $500 fine per animal. Any dangerous wild animals they own in violation of the ordinance would be seized by the city’s animal control unit.

The new rules will not apply to accredited zoos, veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, scientific research centers, or education or scientific institutions.  

A ban on dangerous wild animals was initially suggested by council member David Knight after a venomous zebra cobra was spotted last June in northwest Raleigh, in an area Knight represents. The cobra, owned by Christopher Gifford, 21, had been missing since November of 2020. Gifford failed to report the snake’s escape, a misdemeanor charge he pled guilty to in August of last year.

Ultimately, the zebra cobra was loose for seven months before it was spotted by a neighbor. The sighting prompted a two-day, neighborhood-wide snake hunt by police and animal control officers, who eventually captured and safely removed the snake, although they provided few details about the capture itself. 

The incident set off a media frenzy and inspired dozens of memes, plus dueling Twitter accounts TheRaleighCobra and The REAL Raleigh Cobra. It also prompted local officials to take a closer look at North Carolina’s lax regulations about owning dangerous wild animals.

North Carolina remains one of four states with no laws on private ownership of exotic animals. State legislators leave regulation of the issue up to local counties, cities, and towns, whose rules are often liberal. At the time of the zebra cobra’s escape, Raleigh was the only city in North Carolina without a law regulating the ownership of wild animals. 

The Carolina Tiger Rescue wrote a letter this week expressing support for a local dangerous wild animal ordinance. 

“Many believe that animals raised in captivity by humans lose their predatory instincts,” staff wrote. “This could not be further from the truth…There have been countless dangerous encounters documented by police officers and other first responders, as well as attacks on private owners. Several wild cats at the Carolina Tiger Rescue were turned over to us by owners who could no longer properly and safely care for them.” 

An investigation into the zebra cobra’s escape revealed that it was one of 75 venomous snakes owned by Gifford, who lived with his parents in a home on Chaminox Place.

“How many others own a similar number of deadly snakes in Raleigh? We don’t know,” Knight said Tuesday. “Up until today, there’s been no state law or ordinance preventing him from also owning a lion…a tiger…a chimpanzee. This is not a ban we’re calling for on exotic animals…Just not animals that are prone to kill humans if given the opportunity.”

Gifford’s social media showed him handling a collection of cobras, rattlesnakes, and vipers in violation of the state law, which says snakes must be kept in a sturdy, secure enclosure that has an operable lock and is designed to be escape- and bite-proof. Gifford’s treatment of his poisonous snake collection had consequences—the young man suffered a near-fatal bite from a green mamba last year.

The city council debated the issue of owning wild animals for a year before finally approving a ban this week. City staff will draft a formal text change for the council to vote on July 5. The purchase and ownership of dangerous, wild animals would be outlawed starting September 3, 60 days after the law is officially adopted. A registration program would begin July 1, 2023. 

The year gives staff time to create a dangerous wild animal registry, Knight said. When enforcing the law, staff would respond to complaints rather than completing regular inspections, he added. 

The city council reviewed four options for the law, including one that outright banned the animals and one that allowed people to continue to keep them as pets as long as they are registered.

During the city council’s first conversations about a ban last year, members rejected one option that, in addition to banning dangerous wild animals, would also have banned ownership of raccoons, opossums, skunks, squirrels, ducks, geese, crows, and gulls. It also seemed to ban uncommon pets like sugar gliders, ferrets, and most reptiles, prompting concern from some pet owners as well as local and national groups. 

The original language for the wild animal ordinance also upheld a city statute banning the feeding of feral cats, prompting an objection from Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who jokingly invited the city to fine her for feeding a feral cat outside her Raleigh condo. The statute is no longer enforced following that meeting, apparently at the direction of the mayor and the city attorney. 

The law the council settled on is a compromise, grandfathering in existing pet owners and banning the ownership of dangerous wild animals in the future. Baldwin was one of three to vote against the revised version of the law Tuesday, but she said nothing about the reason for her ‘no’ vote. 

Baldwin was joined in her opposition by council member Stormie Forte, who said an all-out ban was unnecessary and favored a law that would only require registration. Mayor pro tem Nicole Stewart also voted against the ordinance, saying it was basically rhetoric and there was no real way to enforce it. Stewart has opposed a ban since the beginning, she added. 

“We have spent an exorbitant amount of time on this issue. As stats show you, across the nation, over and over again, individuals are not harmed by these animals unless it is their handler,” she said. “There was a lot of perceived threat, but there was never any real threat. There are a lot of things we’re afraid of, and many of them we shouldn’t be afraid of them. There are a lot of things going on in our city that need our attention and I do not think this is one of them.”

Still, the ban passed, thanks in part to the work of Knight, who has pushed hard for it. 

“(For) those neighbors who lived close to where the zebra cobra got loose, it was traumatic,” Knight said. “For those of us who didn’t live close to where this happened, who didn’t have to worry about taking a walk in their neighborhood…it seemed a bit surreal to us. And it did get some laughs along the way. But it wouldn’t have been a laughing matter if one of our first responders who dealt with this or an innocent bystander was bitten or spit on by this snake.”

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