As Burlington rang in 2004, also known on the Chinese calendar as the Year of the Monkey, there were growing indications that the days are numbered for the public display of rare and exotic animals in the Queen City. Last month, the Burlington City Council approved two unrelated ordinances that make it more difficult for people to show off their unusual animals for fun or profit.
The first resolution, sponsored by Councilor Barbara Perry (I-Ward 6) bans exotic pets from the Church Street Marketplace without prior approval from the city. According to language in the ordinance, an "exotic pet" means all animals except domesticated dogs, cats and European ferrets. Apparently, there's been growing unease among some squeamish shoppers and shopkeepers about the presence of large snakes, birds, reptiles and other scaled or creepy critters, not to mention the exotic diseases they sometimes carry.
While no one is suggesting that rabid hamsters or finger-hungry cockatoos have become a serious public health threat on Vermont's premium retail strip, the ban is consistent with ordinances in hundreds of other cities around the country. In fact, most animal-rights groups support such bans -- as does Burlington's animal-safety officer -- for reasons of both animal welfare and public safety.
In a similar vein, the City Council also approved a measure that bans the display of non-domesticated animals for public entertainment or amusement -- specifically, large cats, bears, elephants and nonhuman primates. The ban, which took effect January 1, only covers public places that are owned or operated by the City of Burlington. Although it's mostly symbolic -- there are no city-owned venues large enough to accommodate a three-ring circus such as the Ringling Brothers or Disney on Ice -- the ordinance may be the first step towards the passage of a citywide prohibition against animal road shows.
"This ordinance is based on a huge movement nationwide to try to cut down on traveling circuses because of their inhumane treatment of the large animals," explains Councilor Ian Carleton (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Council's Ordinance Committee. A two-hour public hearing, held just before Christmas, attracted a wide array of spokespeople on both sides of the issue who recognize that if Burlington puts the kibosh on lions, tigers and bears, the move could have serious repercussions and spur similar measures in cities like Boston or New York City.
"Honestly, it was one of the most fascinating debates I have ever seen as a city councilor. It was amazing," says Carleton. "It was really wonderful in terms of public process. I don't know what's going to come of it, though." The Ordinance Committee will likely revisit the issue in February.
Speaking of more natural states, the Vermont Legislature will hold hearings this month on a bill that would require insurance companies to reimburse patients who see a naturopathic physician rather than a conventional doctor. S.184, sponsored by Sen. Virginia Lyons (D-Williston), would require insurance companies to reimburse patients only for naturopathic services or items already covered for other health-care providers, such as lab tests, Pap smears, x-rays and blood-pressure checks.
"Basically, what we want to do is level the playing field so that consumers have a choice of what kind of provider they want to see," says Dr. Lorilee Schoenbeck of the Vermont Association of Naturopathic Physicians. According to Schoenbeck, naturopathic doctors are licensed physicians in the state of Vermont, attend a four-year medical school similar to conventional MDs and receive extensive training not only in conventional medical sciences but also in nutrition, preventative medicine and pharmacology. Naturopathic doctors can see patients for a wide array of conditions ranging from the common cold to heart disease, though they typically order treatments that are more natural and less invasive than those prescribed by conventional doctors.
Presently, there are only about 18 licensed naturopathic physicians in Vermont. Schoenbeck believes their low number is attributable to the fact that insurance companies don't pay for their services or procedures, even when they are identical to those ordered by conventional doctors, nurse practitioners or physician-assistants. In contrast, Connecticut, which requires insurance carriers to reimburse consumers for naturopathic care, has more than 200 NDs. Montana, Washington and Alaska also require such reimbursement.
The bill now before the Senate is not expected to increase the state's already skyrocketing health-care costs. Rather, it could reduce them dramatically. S.184 would not require insurance carriers to cover the cost of naturopathic remedies themselves, even though those treatments are usually less expensive than conventional medications and procedures. For example, a patient taking the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor pays about $76 per month. In contrast, a naturopathic alternative, red yeast rice, only costs about $15 per month.
Perhaps more importantly, reimbursement of naturopathic doctors could help address some of the most debilitating and pricey chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, arthritis, high blood pressure and asthma, which represent about 76 percent of Vermont's annual health-care budget. "Naturopathic physicians excel at the dietary and lifestyle counseling that effectively helps patients prevent these very burdening problems," says Schoenbeck. In other words, safe, cheap and effective preventative medicine. What solution could be more natural than that?