THE thorny question of keeping a ‘wild’ animal at home has hit the headlines once again this week.
North Down MLA Alex Easton has called for a rethink of the current ‘loophole’ which allows people in the province to keep potentially deadly animals like tigers.
Keeping dangerous animals as ‘status symbols’, he said, is ‘ultimately wrong’.
A licence can be obtained via an online application form for the reasonable sum of just £80 - although it may also cost you an arm and a leg depending on the animal in question.
So who are these people - and more importantly where are they living?
The Antrim Guardian attempted to find out, and while the powers-that-be were reluctant to give details on the owners they confirmed that there were dozens of wild animals residing in County Antrim.
Indeed, it has emerged that the ‘deadliest’ snake in the world could be living next door to you.
A Freedom of Information request lodged to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has confirmed that one saw-scaled viper is licensed to an address in County Antrim.
It is widely considered to be the deadliest of all snakes since scientists believe it to be responsible for more human deaths than all other snake species combined.
Its venom may be lethal in less than 10 per cent of untreated victims, but the snake’s natural aggression means it bites early and often.
The viper is one of 36 dangerous snakes which are legally held under licenses across Antrim.
Twelve other snakes on the list are arguably some of the most ‘highly’ or ‘considerably’ dangerous.
The green mamba and the Indian Cobra are snakes which strike fear into the heart of the people of their home countries - and now, one of each has a home somewhere in County Antrim.
Also finding a home here are a puff adder, a mojave rattlesnake and various cobras - a Chinese cobra, a red spitting cobra, an Indochinese spitting cobra and four monocled cobras.
But it is not only the slithery serpents which have found a home from home somewhere near you!
Beware a game of ‘eeny meeny miney mo’, as you may just find yourself catching a real tiger by the toe - one of two living locally (and not in Belfast Zoo!)
Also licensed is a lone wolf, which seems to be a long-term resident, having been on the DAERA record since at least 2014.
Hopefully not acquainting themselves with the waters of Lough Neagh are a caiman and a Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, both of which have been licensed here since 2016.
Moving on to some critters which - at least - appear to be cuddlier than their fellow residents, Antrim is also home to 10 racoons.
The Guardian can also reveal that a racoon escaped from its owner in June 2017.
While the breakout was reported to the Department and logged with police, the animal was recovered by the licensee within 48 hours.
Other animals held locally on licences include four ring-tailed lemurs, two squirrel monkeys, three coatimundis (also members of the racoon family) and a kinkajou - a rainforest mammal also known as a ‘honey bear’.
A licence has been needed to own an animal specified under the Dangerous Wild Animals order since 2006.
In the response to the Antrim Guardian in 2019, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed that it had not seized any legally or illegally held wild animals in the last five years.
They also confirmed that no licence requests or applications had been refused during that same period.
In their breakdown, they were not able to given a more detailed geographical location for each animal than the county of the licensee.
The Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 (DWA) came into effect in December 2006.
Its aim is to regulate the keeping of dangerous wild animals, identified in its schedule, by private individuals.
Up until the order came into effect there was no legal regulation of the keeping of wild animals here.
Speaking about the legislation Brendan Mullan, the chief executive of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has previously said that the group had lobbied for it.
He pointed out that they once had five tigers and over 30 lions in their Benvarden shelter and that the number of big cats in private hands has plummeted as a result of the order.
However, the USPCA does not approve the keeping of exotic animals as pets, regardless of their legal status, he stressed.
“These creatures should not be regarded as companion animals,” said Mr Mullan.
“Their keeping requires a high level of expertise and considerable expense.
“Failure to provide correct conditions will inevitably cause problems which could breach welfare legislation and leave owners at risk of prosecution.
“Many local veterinarians have treated reptiles for lamp burns and fungal infections that are a result of inexperience and ignorance.
“Many other creatures perish and are disposed of without record,” he added.
The granting of a licence under the Dangerous Wild Animals order requires criteria to be satisfied and a vet to carry out an inspection on the accommodation, space and equipment provided for the animal.
However, the licence application form does not require the keeper to demonstrate expertise in the animal's husbandry.
The USPCA also believes that it is ‘probable’ there are unregistered dangerous wild animals in private hands in Northern Ireland and those are likely to be reptiles.