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Dangerous animal owners in Florida aren't required to purchase liability insurance

Victims of animal attacks call for changes in law
Posted: 10:26 PM, Mar 22, 2017
Updated: 2017-03-27 16:54:57Z

If you want to own dangerous captive wildlife in Florida, like alligators, venomous snakes, lions or bears, you have to have a special license.

But you don't have to have liability insurance, even if your facility is open to the public.

These are some of the same wildlife parks that host school field trips.

Some victims of animal attacks say that puts the pubic at risk, and they want to see that law changed.

“It's one of the most traumatic things that I think anybody can experience,” said Andrea Schlake.

A chimpanzee attacked Schlake while she volunteered at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, FL in 2010.

“There was blood everywhere,” she said.

The chimp entered an enclosure Schlake was cleaning through an unlocked door. 

“She ended up biting my hand and breaking my thumb and the tendons in my other fingers,” she said.

Days later, she talked about it.

“My accident was nothing but human error,” Schlake said at a 2010 press conference. 

Schlake initially thought her medical bills would be covered, but soon learned otherwise.

She had signed a waiver at the time she signed up to volunteer years earlier, which indicated any injuries she suffered at the sanctuary were her responsibility.

“I remember having a conversation with some of the people from the sanctuary and them saying something like ‘We don't have insurance. We don't have that kind of money to cover all of it,’” she said.

The bills added up to $70,000, but the sanctuary didn't pay them.

The non-profit is one of 1,137 dangerous wildlife license holders in Florida.

Only about 140 report having liability insurance.

License holders have a choice of either buying a $2 Million dollar liability insurance policy, paying Florida Wildlife Commission $10,000, showing a $10,000 letter of credit or  posting $10,000 bond.

“It's just outrageous that that's allowed,” Schlake said, adding that just one of her surgeries cost more than $10,000.

Large attractions, like Busch Gardens, Sea World, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and Disney's Animal Kingdom, have insurance.

But all reported animal injuries in Tampa Bay since 2010 involved license holders without liability insurance coverage.

About a dozen incidents were investigated by the Florida Wildlife Commission during that time.

"I can't turn knobs. I can't turn my wrist,” said Gina Riggs, who lost use of her right arm after a bear mauled her at Wildlife Haven in Pasco County in 2015.

The attack happened when the sanctuary’s owner took her inside an enclosure where the bear was able to reach her.

“They are still a wild animal and they can do harm to anybody at any given time,” Riggs said.

Riggs' medical bills have reached nearly $1 Million.

She says she didn't know the sanctuary was uninsured when she visited.

“I didn't. I had no idea,” Riggs said. “That has dramatically hurt me financially.”

She sued the sanctuary and FWC for failing to enforce its own regulations, since the owner of the sanctuary did not post the right type of bond with the agency, so she was not able to collect any money toward her bills.  

At Dade City's Wild Things, two visitors, including a nine-year-old boy, reported monkey bites and scratches requiring medical care.

The zoo doesn't report having liability insurance to the Florida Wildlife Commission, but owner Kathy Stearns said they don't submit that information to the state because animal rights activists often target insurance companies, trying to get policies canceled. 

Stearns said neither incident reported to FWC resulted in legitimate injuries. 

“I see a lot of zoo animals. That's why I actually have a license,” said veterinarian Don Woodman.

He says exotic animal attacks are rare and that some small sanctuaries that protect species would have to close, if the state required insurance.

“It's gonna do more than put people out of business. It's gonna drive animals to extinction and that's why it's a problem,” said Woodman.

Suncoast Primate Sanctuary still doesn't have insurance, but regularly hosts public events and school groups.

We tried to interview director Debbie Cobb, but she didn’t want to do an on camera interview.

Their attorney later told us the sanctuary fully complies with the law by posting a bond.

“There is a risk, but people are assumed to assume that liability themselves,” said Woodman, who believes visiting wildlife sanctuaries should be like attending sports events…visitors are made aware that there is not coverage and are told of the risk before they encounter any animals.

“It's deceitful that you can walk into someplace and to not be told, ‘Hey, if something happens, just so you know, we're not covered for you,’” said Schlake.

Check out the interactive map of Tampa Bay exotic animal license holders below:

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