February 2019

The Law of the Jungle

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Laura Sterling thought she was done with the law and with politics. Instead, she found herself back in the fray, with the lives of a farm full of animals on the line.

You don’t need to tell Laura Sterling how laws can impact Americans with disastrous unexpected consequences. She found out first-hand in 2012, when she was removed from the ballot during her run for South Carolina’s District 120.

“They enacted new candidate laws in 2010 that contradicted existing laws,” she said. That contradiction resulted in candidate filing laws being changed after she’d already filed. “All across the state, 200 new candidates were removed from the ballot… I kept being told by the party I was fine. Five days before the election, I got the call.”

Following her removal from the ballot, Sterling attempted to reinvent herself as a restaurateur, hopping on the then-new food truck trend. Once again, she found her ambitions strangled by the red tape of bureaucracy.

“They couldn’t write me a business license, because there was no law at the time regarding food trucks,” she said. Rather than wait for those laws to be written, Sterling was forced, once again, to reinvent herself. “These people who work in government agencies don’t understand we’re not rich and can’t afford to stay in limbo.”

In addition to another foray into politics, a bid for county council in which she placed just one percent behind second place in the primaries, Sterling reinvented herself by returning to something she’d done since she was a child: rescuing and rehabilitating animals. Going back to her days growing up in Allendale County, Sterling and her mother would regularly find sick and injured squirrels around their home and nurse them back to health (“It was like we had an X on our door; they’d always show up at our house.”). It was a practice she continued, and one for which her five-acre farm proved perfect.

OC Angel is the famous goat from the OC Welch commercials, who now lives at Laura’s Little Critter Barn.

“I checked and there was no law against it,” she said. In fact, she worked closely with the county as she went about turning her farm into Laura’s Little Critter Barn, a wildlife rehabilitation center for everything from farm animals to wildlife to unwanted pets. “We started taking in those animals; then last March, we became a nonprofit, because I realized I was going to either have to stop helping, or I was going to have to turn into something.”

After a family trip across country for the summer, Sterling was ready to get back to work. “I came home with one thought in mind: focus on the animals. I was going to get this animal sanctuary up and running the way I wanted it. That’s what I was doing when I found out DNR had a draft law, and now I find myself buried back in law again, right where I didn’t want to be.”

The new draft law, currently being workshopped to various groups around the state, was created by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and essentially looks to license animal rehabbers. Sterling, however, says the scope of this law as proposed would ultimately formalize wildlife as property of the state (something wildlife technically already is under a century-old law regarding hunting), criminalize rehabilitating animals with fines and even jail time, and let DNR unilaterally create laws—something that could have severe unintended consequences.

Chicken Nugget is a rooster that Laura has had since he was an orphaned baby chick.

“Let’s say they pass this law because nobody stopped it. You find a baby squirrel; you decide to raise it and rehabilitate it after doing your research, and it’s just not working,” Sterling said. “So, you go online looking for help, and you find out you’ve done something illegal. You have two choices: one, call a rehabber that’s licensed and permitted and risk being fined and jailed because ignorance of the law is no excuse. Or you keep going because you don’t want to get fined, and the animal’s going to die because you committed a crime you never knew you could commit.”

The draft law’s author, SCDNR wildlife biologist Jay Butfiloski, says the law isn’t intended to criminalize private citizens who attempt to rehabilitate animals, but rather to give them resources. “Most people, if they find a baby squirrel, the first thing they’re going to do is call us or call animal control,” he said. “The law allows for temporary possession to find a rehabilitator, and now you would have an established list.”

Despite reassurances from Butfiloski, and following several tense encounters at meetings between SCDNR and rehabbers from around the state, Sterling remains unswayed. And she’s not alone. A petition she posted online has garnered 60,000 signatures urging SCDNR to put the issue to rest and forget the draft law. Just as bad laws took her off the ballot and preempted her food truck business, she sees this as a bad law that will harm her ability to care for wildlife.

“They say they’re doing this because some rehabbers don’t do it right,” she said. “Making everyone get permitted, it’s a law that applies to any person in the state at any given moment who touches wildlife. There are thousands of pages of animal laws. Before you create a whole new section, go in, read them and make adjustments.”

Laura with Daisy, an orphaned oppossum that was raised and rehabilitated – she just refuses to leave!

According to Butfiloski, that’s all he’s trying to do. “We’re trying to clean this up, set some minimum standards so everyone can work with it within reason. There’s been a lot of gnashing of teeth reading into some of this that’s just not there.”

That could very well be, but then Sterling is no ordinary animal rehabber. When she sees problems in a law as drafted, she speaks not only from years of legal experience, but from having been on the receiving end of the law’s unintended consequences her share of times.
Ultimately, for Sterling, it comes down to the animals.

“Their lives are not just resources,” she said. “They’re living animals. We already have so many people who don’t understand wildlife; all this is going to do is make that worse.”

For more information, give Laura a call at 843.304.2975 or follow her on Facebook at Laura’s Little Critter Barn.

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