Tuesday, March 21, 2023
March 21, 2023

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NYC animal-control officers have seen it all

Tigers, alligators, monkeys, pythons kept illegally in city


NEW YORK — The 4-foot alligator found in Prospect Park recently amazed the city and made national headlines, but for Kevin Sexton, a 15-year veteran field manager for New York Animal Care and Control, it elicited little more than a shrug.

“Not surprised. We’ve had a couple come through,” he told the Daily News. “We actually had one a few years back that was found in Flushing Meadow Park. Around the same size. And same idea it was dumped off in the park.”

Sexton and his team have wrangled all manner of creatures, great and small: everything from errant cattle that bust loose on their way to the slaughterhouse to tropical snakes being peddled illegally online by a dealer in Queens.

Sexton has dangled from the Manhattan Bridge and held up subway service to rescue cats and climbed into cherry pickers to free red-tailed hawks from building safety netting.

The most exotic animal he’s corralled?

“We had to remove a python,” he said. “It was about 14 feet long. And that was from a home. It was seized because they’re illegal to keep in the city.”

In fact, city Health Code 161 lists all manner of pets that are not allowed in the five boroughs.

Unless permitted by the city health commissioner, New Yorkers may not keep a wolf, fox, coyote, hyena, dingo, jackal, dhole, fennec fox, raccoon dog, zorro, bush dog, aardwolf or cape hunting dog, for example.

Similar prohibitions exist on feline species like lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, jaguars, pumas, panthers, mountain lions, cheetahs, wild cats, cougars, bobcats, lynxes, servals, caracals, jaguarundis and margays, according to the health code.

Perhaps the most famous violation of the code was by cab driver Antoine Yates, who kept his 450-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger, Ming, in a spare apartment in Harlem, along with a 5-foot alligator.

Authorities caught a whiff of Yates’ mini-wild kingdom when doctors at Harlem hospital reported the unusual injuries he suffered after he was forced to seek treatment when the jungle cat mauled him.

A special NYPD unit was called, and an officer rappelled down the side of the Hamilton Houses to the window of apartment 5E, where they were able to dart the creature with a tranquilizer and remove it to an animal sanctuary in Ohio with the pet alligator, which Yates named Al.

Sexton said that over the last five years, his team has recovered 5,899 creatures in the urban jungle, including six alligators — Wally and Bobby from Staten Island, Toby and Tick Tock from Brooklyn and, most recently, a 4-foot gator from Flushing Meadow.

For all the sharp teeth and claws he deals with on a daily basis, Sexton said he’s been nipped only once.

“Actually, I had been bitten when I first started. I was probably a year in,” he said. “I can try to make these stories really great, and people would love them, but it was actually a kitten that got me.”

Sexton survived, but he said any bite can be dangerous because bacteria from the animal’s mouth can infect the wound.

Animal Care and Control’s running list has some of the most common animals around: 2,244 raccoons, 802 possums and 781 chickens, including fighting cocks, laying hens and Easter chicks.

The agency has recovered nine pocket gophers, six hedgehogs, a wallaby, a wombat, a Western hognose snake, an African clawed frog and many others.

Animal Care and Control works with the NYPD, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help enforce Health Code 161.

Over the last roughly three years, there have been 1,750 calls for illegal animals to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, mostly rooster complaints (819), followed by general farm animal calls (332). There were 76 calls for illegal snakes, 51 for turtles, 30 for monkeys, 15 for ferrets and five for iguanas — all banned under 161, a violation of which carries a $500 fine.

Inspectors found a capuchin monkey at an autobody repair shop in Brooklyn and issued a summons to owner David Dashosh.

The shop has since shut down — a torn sticker with the word “SEIZED” has been plastered to the door by the state Department of Finance and Taxation for the owner’s $956,752.55 in outstanding debt to New York, according to online records.

What’s allowed and not allowed in the city isn’t always easy to determine, even for city enforcers.

Chen Pangchich, who owns KHC Aquarium in Queens, has been hit twice under the statute for harboring stingrays. On Dec. 29, inspectors also caught him with an electric catfish.

“A customer traded with me for the electric catfish,” he told the Daily News.

In his defense, Panchich said that he beat a 2017 summons when inspectors found nine adult black diamond stingrays in his shop.

He may have a good case to beat the $500 fine he got for the catfish and the most recent stingrays. The animals don’t appear to be covered by the statute on banned animals.

“What’s the reason why we’re not allowed to keep a stingray?” he asked. “I don’t get it. What’s the problem?”