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Council Revisits Parks Tax And Reptile Ownership

Humane Animal Rescue
Pittsburgh City Council is revisiting rules governing ownership of alligators and other reptiles after some were found loose in the city last year.

Pittsburgh City Council returned to a pair of issues that have been looming since late last year on Tuesday, revisiting legislation concerning alligators and other reptiles, and continuing debate on a citywide parks tax that has divided the body since voters approved it last fall.

On Tuesday morning, Bruce Kraus introduced legislation to ban residents from owning, selling, or transferring alligators, crocodiles, and red-eared slider turtles. The ordinance would replace a bill that former District 1 Councilor Darlene Harris sponsored as one of her final official actions last year. Kraus, long a foe of Harris, was the only councilor to vote against the measure. 

The original legislation required owners of crocodilian and venomous snakes to register their pets with the city, and to have secure, locked and escape-proof housing and transportation for the animals. But Kraus said animal-welfare activists had concerns about the measure.

"The main opposition to the bill as it was originally put forward is that you could own the alligator or the turtle as long as you kept it trapped in a box," Kraus said. "Which was the main opposition that Humane Action Pittsburgh had with the bill, which I would have to agree, it's an inhumane way to keep an animal."

Those who currently own the animals could be grandfathered in under the new bill if they have insurance.

The fate of such reptiles drew headlines last year after a series of incidents in which alligators were found loose in the city. Natalie Ahwesh, Vice President of Humane Action Pittsburgh, said her organization and others had been working on their legislation months before Harris introduced her legislation. The animals are often abandoned when they grow too large, she said, putting a strain on local shelters which are forced to send them as far away as Florida. 

"These animals are not easy to own and people are abandoning them," Ahwesh said. "And they’re ending up in our shelters, and we’re finding homes for them that are hundreds of miles away. Or people are abandoning them on a street where they’re freezing to death." 

Kraus introduced a second bill that would ban capturing, harming and selling wild birds. It also would eliminate permits and licenses that would allow people to trap wild birds unless they are with Pittsburgh Animal Care and Control when a bird is injured, inside a building or poses a risk of property damage or physical harm. 

Kraus said there were court cases involving people accused of trapping wild birds, but were thrown out because judges said that the law didn't define what a wild bird was, or specify who was allowed to trap them. The legislation now defines wild birds as any bird, including a pigeon, "that lives in the wild or in an undomesticated state."

The bills are set to be up for discussion next Wednesday in city council. 

On Tuesday afternoon, meanwhile, council held a post-agenda meeting to discuss Councilor Ricky Burgess’ proposal to distribute money from the city's new parks tax. Voters narrowly approved a 0.5-mill increase in the property tax for parks improvements last November, but council has been divided over how to allocate the $10 million a year the tax is supposed to generate.


Burgess's bill simply adopts a working plan drafted by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which advocated for the tax last year. The Conservancy's plan includes a plan to prioritize capital spending in parks with high concentrations of poverty and non-white populations. But that led to criticsm on Tuesday from some councilors whose districts have fewer parks that meet those criteria. 


Anthony Coghill was among the sharpest critics of the proposal. While Burgess' district includes neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty whose parks would benefit the soonest from the Conservancy's approach, Coghill said his South Hills district has parks that don't have permanent restrooms but aren't prioritized by the Conservancy. 


“What [my residents] think is that we’re going to be in those outhouses forever,” Coghill said of the portable toilets currently serving some parks. “That’s the way they feel and we have no reassurance from your plan, and your plan [is] unacceptable to me.”


Conservancy officials stressed that their plan had been drafted after extensive public comment, and that they would continue to solicit public input on how the parks should look.


But after a sometimes testy three-hour debate, Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said council will not move forward until they meet with Mayor Bill Peduto's office to discuss their concerns. She also chastised Burgess for not working with Coghill before proposing his bill, as she had urged them to do in an effort to resolve their differences. 


“I asked for you and Councilman Coghill to sit down and meet with the administration,” Smith said. “And instead of doing that we decide we’re going to have different post-agendas, we’re going to have different public hearings, we’re going to have different plans, we’re going to go down this road publicly. So I’m going to schedule a meeting and say not one more thing is going to happen on this tax until we sit down together with the administration.”


She also added that they would be sure to get restrooms for parks in Coghill’s district.