Lawsuits, controversy surround ban on exotic animals

A year after a Zanesville man freed 56 jungle cats and other dangerous animals, triggering worldwide condemnation of Ohio’s lax regulation, the state is beginning to implement a ban on most private ownership of big cats, alligators and other wild creatures.

The ban is being phased in under the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act, signed into law in June by Gov. John Kasich. State agriculture department officials haven’t compiled a final list, but they say they received about 160 applications to register roughly 900 exotics by a deadline earlier this month. Of those, 130 private individuals registered 483 animals, said spokeswoman Erica Pitchford Hawkins.

The rest came from zoos and research facilities, which are generally unaffected by the law, which goes into full effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Some applications came from breeders, including some of whom are opposing implementation of the law in federal court. Among the plaintiffs is Sean Trimbach, whose “alternative livestock farm,” Best Exotics near Medway in Clark County, is home to some wild mammals and 113 venomous snakes and large constrictors. Snakes are regulated, but not banned, under the law.

Aspects of the law went into effect Sept. 5, prohibiting the sale of wild animals including lions, tigers, certain monkeys and bears. It stopped the once-popular auctions of exotics in some parts of the state, and effectively outlaws the breeding of exotics unless it is part of a species preservation program.

Owners say the law is unconstitutional because the state can confiscate their property — the animals — without compensating them, force them to have microchips surgically implanted in their animals and require them to join zoological groups that don’t support their interests in order to obtain licenses to keep their animals.

“We’ve gone from being legitimate businesses to being looked at as second-rate citizens,” Trimbach said.

Some say law overdue

Animal-protection advocates say the Ohio law is overdue and is needed to prevent a recurrence of the international news-making event that sparked the legislation: the Oct. 18, 2011, disaster in which Terry Thompson of Zanesville killed himself after setting free 56 jungle cats and other dangerous exotics on the Muskingum County countryside. Sheriff’s deputies killed 49 of them to prevent them from escaping into the community and harming citizens.

“This legislation signed by Gov. Kasich was signed on the backs of 49 of the most beautiful creatures ever placed on this earth that should never have been in Ohio,” said Tim Harrison, a retired Oakwood public safety officer and co-founder of Outreach For Animals, which rescues exotics and arranges for them to be placed in sanctuaries. He noted that former Gov. Ted Strickland had signed an executive order banning private ownership of exotics in the waning days of his administration, but Kasich allowed it to lapse when he took office early in 2011.

After the Zanesville incident, Kasich was quoted as saying the prohibition wouldn’t have made a difference, but others disagreed.

Private ownership of wild animals has resulted in 79 human deaths nationally in the last two decades, according to the nonprofit animal advocacy group Born Free USA. Three of those deaths involved Ohioans, including Dayton firefighter Michael Peterman, who died in 2003 after being bitten by his pet African rhino viper.

Under the new law, owners of dangerous wild animals had until Nov. 5 to register them with the Ohio 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. Failure to register also disqualifies an owner from receiving a permit by 2014.

The registration was the state’s first attempt to inventory exotics in the state. Best guesses based on informal reports provided by sheriff’s offices, health departments, wildlife officers and others put the number at 500 to 600 privately owned exotic animals, Hawkins said. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates there are at least 10,000 big cats alone in private hands in the United States.

“We know it’s not a complete picture,” Hawkins said of the registration, “but we feel it’s getting us a lot closer.”

Until the federal lawsuit is heard, the state has agreed not to refer owners for prosecution if they didn’t register by the Nov. 5 deadline.

“Is the state going to come out with a trailer next week and load up your animals? No, that’s not going to happen,” Hawkins said.

Black market feared

Seizure is ultimately a possibility, and by Jan. 1, 2014, state officials expect to complete a $3 million holding facility in Reynoldsburg for seized animals and those surrendered by owners who decide they can’t meet the strict new fencing, acreage and insurance requirements to get a new state wildlife permit.

“We’ll keep them here until we can find a permanent home,” Hawkins said.

Ohio’s law isn’t a total ban. But its tough requirements, which are still being finalized, will put a state license for exotic ownership out of the reach of most private individuals, experts say.

“The lawmakers wanted to make it impossible for the average pet owners to own these animals, and they did it quite well,” said Damien Oxier, owner of Arrowhead Reptile Rescue of Butler County’s Liberty Twp. He said the costs of such requirements as insurance coverage, micro-chipping of animals and accreditation as a wildlife facility make it “all but impossible for an owner to comply with.”

“There’s no reason for the average person to have an alligator in their home,” Oxier said. But “I don’t think there should be a blanket ban. It’s the wrong way to go. They’re just going to create another huge black market. People are going to keep the alligator in their basement and nobody’s going to know it’s there until there’s a problem.”

Harrison said he has already been moving Ohio exotics to accredited sanctuaries in eight states in recent months as private owners begin to give them up in anticipation of the law’s requirements. In the last four months, he has removed 49 lions and tigers, 14 black bears, 12 cougars, four alligators, and an assortment of leopards, wolves and other dangerous animals.

He said Ohio has led the nation in exotic breeding and auctions, and “Dayton’s always been a hotbed, an absolute hotbed.” Harrison knows breeders who located in Ohio because of its lax laws, and some now are planning to leave for states without bans, including neighboring Indiana and West Virginia.

“I’m against untrained people owning these things,” Harrison said. “It’s not fair to the people or the animals.”

‘Baptism in reality’

Breeders frequently sell baby exotics to families, who fail to appreciate the hazards and difficulties of maintaining the animals as they mature, Harrison said.

“Everybody wants a tiger cub, but nobody wants a tiger,” he said. “Everything’s real cute until they become mature and sexually mature and they don’t need you and don’t act like the animals on TV. These owners get a baptism in reality.”

Some owners also exhibit exotics, making money by offering families the opportunity to have their photos taken with the animals, he noted. This practice in 2005 turned tragic when a Siberian tiger attacked a Kansas teenager who was posing for her senior picture.

The death of the girl, Haley Hilderbrand, prompted pending federal legislation that would ban private ownership of big cats. Other pending legislation would prohibit interstate commerce in nonhuman primates like monkeys and apes.

“We’re seeking a federal solution because when we look at the nation, it’s a legal patchwork,” said Tracy Coppola of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Twenty-nine states, including Ohio, and the District of Columbia now ban most big-cat ownership, according to Born Free USA. Eight states have partial bans, 13 require minimal licensing or permitting and seven have no licensing requirements. Until the present law was enacted in June, Ohio was among the most lenient of the states.

Coppola said Ohio’s ban is “a great start,” but without a federal ban, “I’m afraid we’re going to have another Zanesville someplace.”

She said it remains unclear exactly how many exotic animals are in private hands, or whether the breeding and sale of them is on the increase, but “the Internet certainly hasn’t helped.”

As it is, law enforcement agencies have to respond to too many smaller incidents involving exotic pets, Coppola said. “This is a huge taxpayer expense. It’s a dilemma fiscally, too. We have to come up with a system where law enforcement can know what’s out there.”

She said many breeders and sellers of exotics “love the animals and have good intentions,” but others neglect and mistreat them. “We see a lot of profiteering. It’s almost an epidemic in the United States.”

Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, said his organization lobbied the Ohio legislature for an exotic-pet ban “for the better part of a decade.” He said there’s evidence that such laws work, including a drop in the number of incidents requiring exotics to be placed in sanctuaries in states that enact bans.

“We’ve always thought of Ohio as one of the bad actors as far as breeding exotics is concerned,” Roberts said. “We’re pleased Ohio’s made the change.”

‘It will completely shut us down’

Trimbach, who has bred and sold exotic animals and snakes for more than 20 years, said he expected a permit system eventually.

But, he said, “I didn’t think it would be this strict. I’m not against permits, but it’s got to allow us to function as a business.”

His big concern is the blanket nature of a law that effectively outlaws the breeding of any “dangerous wild animal” — everything from lions, bears and crocodiles to caracals, servals and howler monkeys — except for the purposes of a species preservation program.

“On the mammal side of the business, it will completely shut us down,” he said. “On the reptile end, it’s going to be a lot of paperwork and it will be costly, but we’ll still be able to function.”

Although he is unhappy with the law, Trimbach took the steps necessary to comply with it, registering a Syrian brown bear, an African serval cat, two lemurs and two alligators.

“It’s still the law,” he said. “I can’t break the law no matter how much I disagree with it.”

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