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City's Concrete Jungle Home to Illegal Zebras, Iguanas and Monkeys

By James Fanelli | January 21, 2014 7:06am
 Since Jan. 1, 2008, the city has issued 291 violations for harboring illegal animals.
City Cracks Down on Harboring Illegal Animals
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NEW YORK CITY — Welcome to Zoo York.

The Health Department doled out 290 violations to residents and stores in the past five years for harboring animals banned within the city limits.

The beastly busts included a Staten Island man keeping a zebra for his start-up petting zoo, a Brighton Beach theater exhibiting marsupials and a Columbia University superintendent who scared faculty when he would sit on a terrace with his 4-foot python wrapped around his arm, records show.

But most of the monkey business happened in Queens.

The second-most-populated borough led the pack with 86 summonses between Jan. 1, 2008, and September 2013, according to the Health Department. Brooklyn had 69 during that time period, followed by the Bronx with 59, Manhattan with 49 and Staten Island with 27.

Staten Island Zebra
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Zachary Osher

City law prohibits the harboring of wild animals without special permits. That means domesticated dogs are fine as pets, but dingos and wolves are off limits. And keeping a big cat — like a tiger or lion — is a big no-no.  Venomous insects, monkeys and dolphins are also illegal.

The majority of tickets went to residents and stores that harbored wild fowl, including trendy Red Hook distillery and bar Cacao Prieto, which was busted over the summer for keeping several roosters in its backyard.

Another resident who ran afoul of the law was B. Ramsamujh.

Ramsamujh, 47, who asked that his full first name not be published, was busted for keeping 20 Muscovy ducks in the yard of his Jamaica, Queens, home, where he had a coop and a kiddie pool for them to wade in.

The species of duck is native to the Amazon region of Ramsamujh’s South American homeland, Guyana. Residents there capture the wild birds and domesticate them by clipping their wings.

Ramsamujh said he kept the black-and-white ducks as a hobby.

“I don’t know why it was a violation or why someone complained about them,” he told DNAinfo New York. “The ducks would run around and follow me in the summer.”

Those who receive a summons have a right to fight the violation before a city administrative judge.

Ramsamujh argued to a judge that he didn’t know the birds were illegal, but he still lost.

Violators can end up paying thousands of dollars in penalties. Ramsamujh was forced to pay a $500 fine.

After the judge’s decision, he took his feathered friends to Alley Pond Park in Queens, where an employee took them and handed them over to a chicken farm.

Not all animal lovers who were issued tickets lost their cases.

Two years ago, like a modern day Noah, Nicholas Jacinto arrived at the townhouse of billionaire Phillip Falcone with a menagerie of exotic animals.

He carted a sloth, a king snake, a lemur, a marmocet, a hedgehog and a Brazilian aardvark into the hedge fund king’s $50 million Upper East Side home to set up for a birthday party.

Jacinto had been hired to provide the entertainment, displaying the rare critters to gawking guests. But before the show could start, city Health Department inspectors swooped in.

They ticketed Jacinto, a state and federally licensed wildlife expert, for not having a city permit for the animals, and sent him packing back to his Long Island farm with his tail between his legs.

“It was a huge embarrassment what the department did to me,” he recalled.

Jacinto fought back and got an administrative judge to dismiss the violation. He proved that he had applied for a special city permit to exhibit the animals, but the Health Department had erroneously denied him the license.

In December 2012 city inspectors again ticketed Jacinto — this time for exhibiting his two miniature kangaroos, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman, at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, for its Christmas holiday show.

Rooster at Cacoa Prieto in Red Hook
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The inspectors claimed he failed to show an animal exhibit permit. But Jacinto again proved to a judge that he had the appropriate state permit.

Jacinto said he decided not to do Millennium’s holiday show this year because of the headaches with the Health Department.

“I didn't do it just because of the aggravation,” he said.

Many of the violations went to pet stores for selling banned reptiles.

In June 2012, city inspectors issued a summons to Upper West Side pet shop Fauna LLC for keeping a 2-foot python in a glass cage. Dozens of 99-cent stores and mom-and-pop shops have also been ticketed over the past five years for selling turtles with shell sizes of less than 4 inches, records show. Turtles of that size have been known to cause Salmonella infections in humans.

Steve Rosalbo, who owns Staten Island's Rosalbo Pets, said many of the animals on the city’s banned list are legal in counties right outside the city. He estimates that his shop loses $50,000 a year because customers looking for exotic pets — or meals for those pets — will head to stores that don’t have to follow the city’s strict rules.

“People come looking for rats, but I don’t sell any animal big enough to eat a rat,” he said.

City inspectors ticketed Rosalbo’s store in March 2013 for displaying a green iguana, records show. He blamed the iguana on a shipping mix-up. He said he had ordered a water dragon, which is legal, but the supplier mistakenly sent him the illegal iguana.

“A juvenile iguana looks exactly like a water dragon,” he said, adding that he was planning on returning the reptile before inspectors showed up. “Somebody ratted us out.”

Rosalbo said he was never told the date of his hearing, but he eventually received a notice that a judge had sustained the violation and ordered him to pay $400.

“It's hard enough to do business in the city. I'm here seven days a week. The city just comes in and harasses you,” he said. “You pay for the permits, and they just keep harassing you.”