When Abe Karajerjian applied for a permit to turn his backyard into a retirement home for seven former show-business orangutans, the neighbors howled in protest.
Residents of this desert community worried about a repeat of last year's horrifying chimpanzee attack, in which a man nearly died. "I feel that my children … will be put at extreme risk if these animals escape," neighbor Grant Torkelson wrote in a letter to Kern County officials, pleading with them to deny the application.
Karajerjian's application was delayed after game wardens inspected his property and found 28 snapping turtles and two gila monsters - all illegal without a permit. But if he meets conditions set by state and county officials, the orangutans will soon take up residence in a giant cage which, judging by Department of Fish and Game records obtained by The Associated Press, will be subject to infrequent inspections and little oversight.
Californians own at least 250,000 so-called exotic animals, ranging from hedgehogs and ferrets to cobras, lions, tigers, bears and elephants, according to a Fish and Game database created for the AP after a California Public Records Act request.
Yet despite having some of the strictest laws in the nation regarding the possession of such animals, experts say California does a poor job regulating the facilities that house them.
"It essentially suffers from lack of enforcement," said Nicole Paquette, director of legal and government affairs for the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute, who has examined exotic animal laws in all 50 states.
The Fish and Game department has no central listing of exotic animals and their owners, spokesman Steve Martarano said. Nor is there a reliable accounting of incidents - deaths, escapes, substandard conditions - and how they were resolved.
According to the records, 16 "enforcement actions" involving exotic animals were reported among 250 facilities with active permits as of last August. No permits were revoked and only one violation resulted in a criminal conviction.
But even Martarano acknowledges the data is disorganized and incomplete. For example, the 16 enforcement actions do not include two highly publicized incidents last year.
In July, John Weinhart of Riverside was sentenced to two years in prison after authorities found 11 newborn tiger and leopard cubs in the attic, 58 dead cubs in a freezer and the rotting and mummified carcasses of at least 30 exotic cats.
And last February, a 425-pound tiger was shot and killed in Moorpark after it was spotted slinking through backyards. The big cat had been on the loose for more than a week after it escaped while its owners were illegally moving it. The couple faces federal charges, including obstructing justice and submitting false records.
Many home menageries are in remote locations and see few, if any, visits from state inspectors once the rigorous initial permitting process is complete. Annual renewals are generally granted without an inspection.
Martarano says Fish and Game has about 200 field wardens who are responsible for everything from hunting and fishing license enforcement, to investigating poaching, to inspecting the facilities that house exotic animals. That's down from about 300 wardens five years ago, he said.
The department did just 14 "restricted species" inspections out of the 300 or so that were required in 2004, he said. The rest were done by USDA-approved veterinarians, an alternative allowed under California law. The veterinarian then submits paperwork to the state, vouching for the facility. But the state makes no effort to verify that information, a major kink in the system, according to some animal advocates
Pat Derby, who runs the Performing Animal Welfare Society on Simmerhorn Road in Galt, wants inspection responsibilities put in the hands of local animal control officers.
"The problem is that Fish and Game never wanted that job," she said.
Martarano admits the department is stretched thin, but he doesn't think that puts Californians at risk.
"Obviously, some things fall through the cracks," he said. "It's enforced in big part by those people doing that business. They enforce each other. Most of the complaints we get are from other facilities. They know when something happens there's a black eye on all of them."
The biggest black eye - the one that makes Grant Torkelson nervous about his children's well-being - occurred in March 2005, when a couple visiting their pet chimpanzee at an animal sanctuary outside Bakersfield was attacked by two other chimps. The man, St. James Davis, lost most of his face, a foot and his fingers before the animals were shot to death.
Yet Virginia Brauer, who runs Animal Haven Ranch, was not fined, sued or charged with a crime. She still cares for five chimps and a spider monkey and her permit was renewed last month, according to Fish and Game.
"We felt there were misdemeanor violations, but the DA disagreed," Martarano said. "We went back and looked at the record of the facility, the nature of what happened. It was an accident. She had a clean record all the way up to that point."
Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels said there was no evidence Brauer had left the cage unlocked and the chimps had simply learned to open it.
Brauer turned down several requests for an interview. The Davises also declined to speak with the AP.
Singer Michael Jackson has also been criticized for his Neverland Ranch zoo, which includes giraffes, orangutans, elephants and dozens of reptiles. His veterinarian has sued, claiming Jackson owes him more than $90,000.
Another well-publicized incident involved heiress Paris Hilton and her pet kinkajou. The tiny, racoon-like pet attacked her in a Las Vegas lingerie shop. Afterward, Hilton illegally brought Baby Luv into California without a permit - which, as an untrained person with no compelling interest in keeping exotic animals, she probably wouldn't have received. But Fish and Game did nothing.
"It's not one of our highest priorities to hunt down everyone with restricted species," Martarano said. "You have to weigh the public safety issue against everything else."
Abe Karajerjian's would-be orangutan sanctuary sits amid a cluster of about a dozen modest homes along a narrow dirt road adjacent to acres of uninhabited desert owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Torkelson says he and other neighbors felt "blown off" by county officials who ultimately approved Karajerjian's permit.
Ted James, secretary for the county planning commission, said the permit was granted with several conditions regarding water supply, fencing and cages, and waste removal. He also said the commission was satisfied with Karajerjian's explanation of the animals' nature.
"Orangutans are docile," James said. "Chimps are not."
But Torkelson says his fears have not been allayed.
"Some people say it's a perfect place because it looks empty," Torkelson said of the cactusand sagebrush-dotted landscape. "It doesn't look empty to me. I grew up here."
Karajerjian did not return repeated phone calls, nor was he home when a reporter recently visited.
First published: Monday, April 17, 2006