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Few owners register exotic animals

An alligator removed from a Huber Heights basement last week illustrates a statewide concern about private citizens who own unregistered exotic animals.

Sparked by a 2011 Zanesville case where the owner released 56 exotic animals before committing suicide, the state passed legislation last year to regulate ownership of the animals.

Statewide, 142 private owners registered a total of 360 dangerous wild animals during a two-month registration period last year, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. But that number, some experts say, doesn’t begin to capture the number of exotic animals that are being kept by private owners throughout the state.

A public records request by this newspaper shows that there are 14 citizens who registered a total of 59 exotic animals in the region’s eight counties, including Montgomery, Miami, Greene, Warren, Clark, Champaign, Butler and Preble.

In the Huber Heights case, the alligator’s owner, David Keefer, had not registered the animal.

Tim Harrison, the director of Outreach For Animals, a nonprofit exotic animal rescue organization, estimated that “at least 90 percent” of animal owners did not register their exotic animals.

The registration was the state’s first attempt to create a benchmark of exotics.

“We’re not going to speculate on the number of unregistered owners,” said Erica Hawkins, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture. “That being said, we definitely recognize that we didn’t get a 100 percent capture rate. There’s really no way to know because there’s never been a list or registry to gauge it off.”

Failure to register disqualifies an owner from receiving a permit by 2014.

“In January 2014, they will be disobeying the law,” Harrison said. “There are animals that zoos can have a hard time handling, so what gives untrained people in Dayton, Ohio, the right to have them?”

The new state law — the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act — takes full effect Jan. 1, 2014, and in the meantime, state officials have been phasing in certain aspects of the law, which Gov. John Kasich signed last June.

The first phase went into effect Sept. 5, prohibiting the sale of dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers and bears. Owners of dangerous wild animals had until Nov. 5, 2012, to register them with the Department of Agriculture and have them tagged with a microchip, or face charges — a first-degree misdemeanor for the first offense and a fifth-degree felony for each subsequent offense.

The new state legislation was sparked by the Zanesville incident in Oct. 2011 in which Terry Thompson killed himself after setting free 56 jungle cats and other dangerous exotic animals in the Muskingum County countryside. Sheriff’s deputies killed 49 of the animals to prevent them from escaping into the community and harming citizens.

Starting Oct. 1, owners of a registered dangerous wild animal may apply for a permit from the Department of Agriculture. A valid permit is required to maintain ownership of any dangerous wild animal beyond Jan. 1, 2014.

Owners also must pay fees, pass background checks, own at least an acre of land, establish and submit a plan if the animal escapes, and demonstrate through two years of experience or a written examination that they are capable of caring for the animal. There are 17 exempted zoos and other facilities in the state, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Sean Trimbach, who runs Best Exotics near Medway in Clark County, registered an African serval cat, a Syrian brown bear, two ring-tailed lemurs and two American alligators with the state.

He’s bred and sold exotic animals and snakes for more than 20 years, and the new state law — which outlaws the breeding of dangerous wild animals — will “completely shut us down on the mammal end,” Trimbach said.

Trimbach’s income will be cut in half, he said, and the cost of insurance will jump from $1,700 a year to $10,000 a year.

“It basically took our business plan and destroyed it,” he said. “It’s added expenses and taken away income where we’re not even functional. It’s going to be difficult to continue, but we’ll do everything we can to keep going.”

Brian Weltge, president and CEO of the Humane Society of Greater Dayton, said he applauds the state for cracking down on citizens who own exotic animals. But he did say it’s unfortunate that the tragic event in Zanesville had to happen to generate state regulations.

“I’m guessing there’s a lot more who haven’t registered,” Weltge said. “Unfortunately, it will be the humane societies that stumble across reports, people calling in, concerned neighbors that help us find owners who didn’t register and didn’t intend to.”

The state has the right to seize the animals if owners can’t meet the new requirements or they are denied a permit. Those animals will be taken to the state’s 20,000-square-foot exotic animal containment facility in Reynoldsburg, which was completed at the end of February and cost nearly $3 million to build, Hawkins said.

The Humane Society of Greater Dayton pulled an alligator out of Keefer’s home on June 2 after getting a tip about mistreatment.

Officials said the alligator was not being kept in proper conditions nor was it on a proper diet. It is stunted in growth for its age and is showing other signs of health deterioration, including broken, missing and loose teeth and issues in its snout area.

“There are certain animals in our world that are not and should not be pets,” Weltge said. “They require special habitats, special feeding situations, special handling and they’re dangerous. They’re beautiful animals, and they’re in this world for a purpose, and the purpose isn’t supposed to be in someone’s basement in a pool.”

Ownership of exotic animals has resulted in 80 human deaths nationally since 1990, according to the nonprofit animal advocacy group Born Free USA.

Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, said that exotic animal owners are a “hard group to identify,” and with Ohio’s lack of earlier laws regulating exotic animals, it’s a group that’s been able to “fly under the radar.”

“Oftentimes, we underestimate how many people own exotic animals and how many of those animals are out there,” Roberts said. “We hope for Ohio’s legislation, this is the beginning of the process rather than the end. We hope they really enforce the law strictly and see if it’s having the intended effect. If it’s not, they should revisit the issue and make the law stronger.”

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