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Neighbors wary of W.Va. woman's home 'zoo'

January 30, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. - One minute, Tasha the cougar is sitting quietly on top of her plastic dog house soaking up the morning sun and the next moment she's prowling around the inside of the cage.

Sometimes she lunges from side to side, and her German shepherd pal Sabbath occasionally joins in the play by running in the opposite direction around the cougar's pen.

It's the kind of animal antics that Deborah Snider loves. But not everyone in Berkeley County is crazy about her collection of exotic animals.

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Two of Snider's neighbors accompanied animal control and wildlife officials to an appearance before the Berkeley County Commissioners Thursday morning to express concerns about Snider's animals.

The neighbors were concerned about whether Snider can safely keep the animals on her land and whether she plans to add any more animals to her collection - which also includes a European animal known as a fallow deer and a handful of Australian birds called emus.

"If this mountain lion would get out, you wouldn't have a chance," said Jim Larkin, who lives near Snider in the Monte Villa Hills subdivision off Cherry Run Road west of Hedgesville.

Snider was cited by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources for having the cougar because it is illegal to have the big cats in the state, officials said.

Sgt. Jerry Jenkins of the Department of Natural Resources told the commissioners that Snider has until Saturday to remove the 150-pound cougar from her property.

Jenkins said his department is prepared to have the cat tranquilized and removed if Snider does not have it out of the area by Saturday.

Snider said she expects her son to travel from Colorado on Saturday to pick up the animal and take it back there, where she owns property.

If her son is unable to make the trip in time, Snider said she might take the cat to a cougar expert in Lovingston, Va.

But the cougar is not the only animal raising concern among animal control officials and Snider's neighbors.

County officials said the fallow deer and two horses at Snider's house were being kept in cramped conditions, and said there was no shelter for the horses.

Snider also owns what animal control officials are calling a "hybrid wolf." Berkeley County Animal Control officer Ray Strine said the animal has gotten loose twice, and that he fears for the safety of children in the community.

Snider says the animal is not a hybrid wolf, but a cross between a husky and a German shepherd.

County Commission President Jim Smith told Snider she must keep the animal on a leash, and warned that if it gets lose again, it will be picked up by animal control officers.

Smith said the county could not require her to build a shelter for her horses, but asked Snider to cooperate with wildlife officials.

"What you're into, frankly, bothers this County Commission," said Smith. "The point is you have a major obligation to your neighbors."

Snider, who said she always has tried to abide by animal laws, said she believes she is being harassed about her animals.

Snider said that when she moved to the area two years ago, wildlife officials told her she could have the cougar, provided she got approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Snider said several people own cougars in nearby Virginia.

"It's much more common than people realize," said Snider, who works as a nurse at City Hospital near Martinsburg, W.Va.

Although there have been concerns about safety and cramped conditions for the animals, officials said Snider's animals are well-fed. Snider keeps the animals in several pens and runs just outside the house she leases.

Snider said her interest in exotic animals was sparked in 1989 when she and her son visited a number of petting zoos during a trip across the country.

Snider purchased 4-year-old Tasha from a breeder in Kansas last June.

Snider visits Tasha at least once a day, and sometimes wrestles with her. But the cougar values her solitude as much as her play time with Snider, and the cat will emit a growl when she has had enough of a visitor, Snider said.

"She calls the shots," said Snider.

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