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Ohio’s $2.8M exotic animal facility could be converted for other uses

The state of Ohio is expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on a $2.8 million temporary holding facility for exotic animals that in a matter of years, could wind up being a storage building, according to state officials.

Built using taxpayers’ money, the 20,000-square-foot facility in Reynoldsburg was completed at the end of February to temporarily house exotic animals once a new state law — the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act — takes full effect Jan. 1, 2014.

The state legislation was sparked by an October 2011 Zanesville incident when 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.

Lawmakers, state leaders, residents and exotic animal experts are at odds about whether the facility, located in the incorporated area of Etna Twp. in Reynoldsburg, is necessary and how long it will be used before the state repurposes it.

“The legislature and governor should be ashamed of themselves for the amount of money spent on the building,” said John Carlisle, president of the Etna Twp. board of trustees. “It was a rush to fix a problem because of an isolated issue that happened.”

There have been approximately 15 animals that have temporarily stayed at the facility — mostly alligators and a few bears, said David Daniels, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

The state has spent nearly $2,200 dollars to provide for the animals, according to receipts obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

“It became very clear after the law was passed that we had to have a facility to take care of them,” Daniels said. “When we need to bring animals in, it keeps the public safe from them and allows them to be in a safe place.”

Most of the animals were relinquished to the state by private owners and stayed, on average, three or four days before being transported, Daniels said. State law doesn’t specify a maximum time animals can stay at the facility. Owners who relinquish their exotic animals to the state are not assessed a fee to help offset the cost of food and care, said Brett Gates, a state spokesman.

The state will not reveal what, if anything, is currently at the facility, citing safety concerns. At maximum capacity, it can hold 27 large animals, a half-dozen small primates and several snakes.

The facility is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, said Erica Hawkins, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture. It is at 8995 E. Main Street on the Department of Agriculture’s 150-acre campus property — in close proximity to residential housing, churches and school buildings.

Access to the facility is limited to a handful of Department of Agriculture staff members.

“It’s really been a silent and invisible neighbor, and that’s what we want,” said Rep. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, whose district includes Reynoldsburg. “It’s been problem-free and news-free. That’s why we did the overkill on precautions.”

The law

State officials have been phasing in aspects of the law, which Gov. John Kasich signed last June. The first phase went into effect Sept. 5, 2012, prohibiting the sale or purchase of dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers and bears.

During a two-month registration period last year, 142 private owners statewide registered a total of 360 dangerous wild animals, according to the Department of Agriculture. Regionally, 14 people registered 59 exotic animals in Montgomery, Miami, Greene, Warren, Clark, Champaign, Butler and Preble counties.

Starting Oct. 1, owners of registered dangerous wild animals may apply for a permit from the Department of Agriculture. Failure to register disqualifies an owner from receiving a permit by Jan. 1, 2014. The state can seize the animals if owners are denied a permit or can’t meet the new requirements.

Before the state law was established, there were no regulations for private citizens to own 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, estimates that 90 percent of owners did not register their exotic animals. He said in Ohio, there are 2,000 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars; at least 1,000 bears; and potentially thousands of alligators.

“At first, I didn’t think (the facility) was needed,” Harrison said. “(But) it’s been used and it will be used. There’s more out there than what we thought. We’re finding out that yes, we do need it. There’s no place to put them. We’ll see what 2014 brings.”

According to state law, private owners must be granted approval from the state to transfer their exotic animals to an accredited sanctuary. Since last September, 35 owners have been approved transfers by the state — 17 alligators, 13 bears, four lions and one snake.

Facility could be converted

Experts believe that as time goes on, there won’t be a need for the facility and the 20,000-square-foot building could be converted for other uses.

“It’d be the most secure storage facility you’ve probably seen,” Hawkins said.

Lewis Greene, senior vice president for animal care and conservation at the Columbus Zoo, said the state was wise to spend tax dollars on this facility. He said, though, that as “we get further away from Jan. 1, the number of animals should start to decrease.”

“Frankly, nobody knows how many animals will be turned in,” Greene said. “Some day in the future, the building could be easily repurposed so it’s not a waste of money.”

Hottinger said he expects Ohio residents will continue to break the law and the facility will be needed in the future to temporarily house exotic animals. But if the time comes that it is no longer needed, it could serve multiple purposes because of its extensive security features.

“I’d hate for it to be just used as storage because it’s a pretty expensive building,” Hottinger said. “It’s basically a very elaborate and security-laden pole barn.”

Harrison said the facility should see business pick up after Jan. 1, but he’s “praying” that by the end of 2014, the state won’t need the facility any longer.

“If there’s nothing in there, we can shut it down and walk away,” Daniels said. “It’d be (a) negligible (cost) if nothing is in there.”

What it will cost

On Sept. 10, 2012, the state Controlling Board released $3.5 million for construction of the facility, which broke ground in November.

The department has not asked the Controlling Board for more money, Daniels said. The approximate annual operating cost is between $100,000 and $500,000 depending on the number and species of the animals, he said.

Rep. Vern Sykes, D-Akron, was the only Controlling Board member to vote against the proposal. According to the minutes, Sykes said the “approval is being rushed,” and expressed his desire to delay the vote until after local officials and residents were notified of the project. Sykes did not return multiple messages and emails seeking additional comment.

Hottinger said the “status quo is not a viable option,” according to the minutes. He said in an interview last week that the facility is as secure as Fort Knox, and it would take “multiple simultaneous failures for any animal to get out.”

“Ideally, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to have this need,” Hottinger said. “This was the best alternative that existed. All other alternatives were much more financially costly to the taxpayers than what this is going to be.”

State, zoo partnership

After looking at other state lands and Ohio zoos, Hawkins said it “made the most sense” to build the facility on state-owned property where the Department of Agriculture already operates.

“They don’t have a holding area for animals like this,” she said. “They couldn’t guarantee room for them.”

The state and the Columbus Zoo entered into a memorandum of understanding July 1 for zoo personnel to provide assistance when exotic animals are at the facility. The zoo will send a minimum of two employees to the facility, Greene said.

The memorandum of understanding expires June 30, 2015 and cost the state a maximum of $45,000, Hawkins said.

There were preliminary discussions about the option of housing the animals at the zoo, but Greene said the zoo — which is on 500-plus acres — does not have the extra holding space. The state still would have had to build a facility on zoo property.

“We explored a number of different options,” Daniels said. “Ultimately, we decided that the best location for the state was to build the facility that we’ve got.”

Citizens upset about location

Residents who live near the facility aren’t thrilled for a number of reasons — a lack of communication from the state, safety concerns, the location and the fear of their property value declining. Hawkins said there were no open public forums for citizens to provide feedback.

Trustee president Carlisle said Daniels was “less than forthcoming with the information.” He said the township sought legal advice, but was told it did not have a leg to stand on because the township doesn’t own any property adjacent to the Department of Agriculture.

Ronnie Chaffin, who lives on Westview Drive, said the facility is less than 200 yards from his house. He didn’t find out about the project until after it was approved, he said.

“It’s a miserable thing in my backyard,” Chaffin said.

Chuck Williams, who also lives on Westview Drive, said the building is an “eyesore in his backyard,” but acknowledged he hasn’t had any problems since it opened.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars — the amount of dollars not only to build this facility, but to also run this facility,” Williams said. “It doesn’t appear that the facility was needed.”

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