Tysons Corner, VA

Chinchillas, hedgehogs, turtles, hermit crabs and tortoises are one step closer to legalized pet status in the City of Falls Church.

The city is considering adding the animals to the list of allowed pets about five months after Fairfax County legalized pet hedgehogs, chinchillas and hermit crabs.

Similar to debate on the county level earlier this year, a Falls Church City Council meeting last Monday (June 10) focused mostly on the hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals that require space, exercise and room temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure they do not start hibernating, according to the Hedgehog Welfare Society. Along with cats, dogs, frogs, hamsters and many other animals, hedgehogs can spread salmonella, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Arlington County decided in 2017 to allow chinchillas and hedgehogs, hermit crabs are still illegal there.

Isabel D., a junior at George Mason High School and one of several students to testify in support of legalizing the animals, told the City Council that Arlington and Fairfax counties went through an extensive review process before deciding to allow more exotic animals as pets.

“I think you already know that many of our residents have these pets currently,” she said. “That is not because people want to disobey the law. It is because, unless they actually read the city code, they would have no way of suspecting that a pet like a turtle or a hedgehog or hermit crab would be outlawed in our city. They are cute and just as harmless as the pets that are allowed.”

Currently, the city allows dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, birds, goldfish and aquarium fish, nonpoisonous snakes, rabbits, mice and rats as pets.

Councilmembers Phil Duncan and Ross Litkenhous both fessed up to unwittingly owning hermit crabs illegally.

While Duncan said that his current ownership of two hermit crabs is a conflict of interest, he said that residents might have anxiety about bringing illegal pets to the vet, possibly jeopardizing the health of the pet and human.

“The city attorney said I can vote on this because I have no financial interest, I’m not a trader,” Duncan said. In response to the audience laughing, he added, “I’m serious about this. This is the kind of stuff you stay up at night worrying about. This can and will be used against you in a campaign, I can tell you.”

Meanwhile, Litkenhous said, “I didn’t know you can’t have hermit crabs. We’ve probably violated that law three to four times over at my house.”

While sharing why he is “fully in support of this resolution,” Litkenhous tackled concerns about health and safety often surrounding the hedgehog pet debate.

“I have birthed live cows with my bare hands before, and I can tell you I have never once in my life ever gotten sick or known anyone who has gotten sick by handling these types of animals,” he said.

In response to concerns that exotic animals legalized as pets face more monetization and abuse, Litkenhous said all kinds of animals are at some type of risk.

Ultimately, he argued that animals shouldn’t be banned as pets for good owners who would treat them humanely.

Councilmember David Snyder also expressed support for continuing consideration of the proposed change.

“The existing law allows the keeping of rats, but [not] hedgehogs and chinchillas — really?” Snyder questioned. While Rebecca Keenan, the animal warden for the city’s police department, responded that rats are allowed since snake owners often feed them live rats, Snyder said that “a lot” of residents want the City Council to legalize the exotic animals as pets.

If allowing them as pets causes unexpected problems, Snyder said the City Council could always change the code again.

The City Council staff, the City Animal Warden and Police Chief Mary Gavin said they want the current code provisions, which were written in the 1990s to address widespread problems with exotic animals as pets around the region, to stay as is.

“We’re about to open a can of worms where it might not seem like a little hedgehog is a problem, but we’re going to open up our city to invasive species again,” Keenan told the council.

Keenan recounted stories about going undercover to pet shows in Dulles, keeping abandoned, exotic animals in her home when local shelters couldn’t take them and receiving calls to Animal Control from residents asking about different types of exotic pets. “We had a tiger here in the city a few years ago,” she said.

As for Fairfax and Arlington counties’ decisions, Keenan said that it’s still too soon to tell how much of an impact the change has had.

“There hasn’t been enough to see what that means,” she said. “There hasn’t been enough time for those animals to start showing up in the shelters again, but I believe they will.”

While Mayor David Tarter said he has concerns about the proposal, he called the list “a fairly limited range of animals” and praised the civic engagement around the issue.

“This is what democracy in a small town is really all about,” Tarter said.

The City Council approved the first reading of the proposal last Monday and decided to hold a hearing at the next City Council meeting on Monday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m.

Photo by Hans-Olof Andersson on Unsplash

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