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More than half of exotic animal permits unresolved

State legislation came after man set dangerous animals free.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture continues to issue permits to exotic animal owners, yet more than half of the applications are pending as the state works with those who applied for them.

The state said in early February that it hoped to complete the application and permitting process by the end of March, but challenges such as insurance and caging requirements have slowed the process, said Erica Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Through the end of March, 33 permits had been issued, 42 permits were pending and none had been denied, Hawkins said. The new Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act took full effect Jan. 1.

“We were hoping to have a few more done at this point, but at the same time, we want to work with owners and give them the time they need to get their pieces in order if they want to keep their animals,” Hawkins said. “It’s a balancing act.”

The state will continue to work with owners during the permitting process, she said, in addition to reaching out to owners who registered their animals but did not apply for a permit. No animals have been seized by the state, Hawkins said.

Hawkins did not want to speculate when the permitting process will be completed, but said the state will “need to start to look at denying permits” at some point.

“We’re going to do what we can for the owners who genuinely want to be in compliance,” Hawkins said.

During a two-month registration period in late 2012, 150 owners — private citizens and zoos — registered a total of 888 dangerous wild animals, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Before the law was established, Ohio had no regulations related to private citizens owning exotic animals, nor was there an inventory of exotics in the state.

Tim Harrison, the director of Outreach For Animals, a nonprofit exotic animal rescue organization, has estimated that 90 percent of owners did not register their exotic animals. He said in Ohio there are 2,000 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars, and about 1,000 bears.

“(The state law) is a real positive for the future of the state of Ohio, and it might be an example for the rest of the country,” Harrison said. “There are still people out there bucking the system.”

Harrison said he feared some owners might set their animals free this summer.

“We have to be ready for that, and we are,” he said.

Hawkins said the state will continue to enforce the ban on acquiring new exotic animals and bringing them into the state, as well as monitor permitted owners to make sure their facilities are maintained.

“There are always going to be folks with any law that are going to want to operate as they have been, despite what they’re doing is now illegal,” Hawkins said. “We’re not being naïve.”

State officials phased in aspects of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act that Gov. John Kasich signed in June 2012. The first phase went into effect Sept. 5, 2012, prohibiting the sale or purchase of dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers and bears.

Owners of registered dangerous wild animals began applying for permits from the Department of Agriculture on Oct. 1, 2013.

Last month, a federal appeals court upheld Ohio’s law restricting the ownership of exotic animals — denying a plea by owners, who alleged the law violates their free speech and free association rights.

Seven owners sued the state, claiming the new state law will hurt their business of breeding and selling exotic animals, while compelling them to join exempted organizations they don’t support. Representatives from the Ohio Association of Animal Owners did not return messages seeking comment.

Bobbi Brink, founder of Lions, Tigers & Bears based in Alpine, Calif., said her organization has helped relocate 42 exotic animals from Ohio to sanctuaries around the country since August 2012.

“The regulations the state is asking for is what you owe the animal as an owner,” Brink said. “It’s not like the state is not willing to work with these people. They want to see the animals cared for. They deserve the proper diet and medical care. That needs to come first, not everything else.”

The state built a taxpayer-funded, $2.8 million, 20,000-square-foot temporary holding facility in Reynoldsburg on the Department of Agriculture’s 150-acre campus property.

Construction was completed at the end of February 2013, and since it opened, there have been 32 exotic animals that have stayed there, mostly alligators and bears. Hawkins declined to say if the facility is currently occupied.

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

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