By ALAN JOHNSON
The Columbus Dispatch
The Ohio law banning the sale, ownership and breeding of exotic animals will take full effect on Jan. 1, the next stop on a journey that began even before dozens of wild beasts were set free to roam the Zanesville countryside.
Ohio Agriculture Director David Daniels says his agency, which is charged with enforcing the law, is ready.
“We’ve been working through all the issues,” he said. “The staff is in place.”
Still unknown is exactly how many restricted animals are out there. Although 150 owners, including zoos, registered 888 animals, the “X” factor is the number of owners who have not signed up, either because they are uninformed or are defying the law.
“There are people out there who have chosen not to register with us and are skirting the law,” Daniels said. When unregistered animals on the restricted list are located in Ohio after Jan. 1, they will be seized by the state. Daniels said there are no exemptions in Ohio law to allow scofflaw owners to keep their animals.
But Daniels says his department will be more flexible in dealing with owners who are making an honest effort to comply with the law.
The exotic-animals law enacted last year bans private owners from acquiring, selling and breeding restricted species in Ohio. The restricted list includes lions, tigers, bears, elephants, certain monkeys, rhinos, alligators, crocodiles, anacondas and pythons longer than 12 feet, certain vipers and all venomous snakes. Owners who have registered the animals they have - and met caging and care standards set out in the law - can keep their animals as long as they live. But they can’t buy new ones or breed those they have.
Animal owners must pay for “wildlife shelter” at $250 for one to three animals and up to $1,000 for 11 to 15 animals, obtain liability insurance or a surety bond of $200,000 to $1?million, and meet a variety of caging and cage standards.
Snake owners were allowed to follow a different path. They don’t have to register until Jan. 1, so the state doesn’t know how many snakes are out there.
In the meantime, a building resembling a small prison - complete with fences topped with razor wire, surveillance cameras and an alarm system - is nestled on the grounds of the Agriculture Department at 8995 E. Main St. in Reynoldsburg. The structure is the Dangerous Wild Animal Temporary Holding Facility, a $2.9 million place where exotic animals seized from or relinquished by owners are temporarily kept.
During a reporter’s recent visit, the facility held five animals: four alligators and a female cougar who appeared formidable and powerful, but purred loudly when she saw visitors outside her cage.
Agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said that since the animal facility opened this year, 24 alligators, two black bears, an Asiatic bear and the cougar have lived there briefly at taxpayer expense. All except the current residents were moved to new homes out of state, she said.
Among the 888 animals registered by private owners and zoos are 338 primates, 86 tigers, 80 bears, 79 alligators, 54 lions, 35 cheetahs, 25 rhinos, 15 elephants, six crocodiles and three hippos.
The law was a tough sell in the General Assembly, where lawmakers heard from dozens of witnesses, many of them passionate animal owners who feared their pets were about to be taken from them. Once the law passed, seven owners - including Terry Wilkins, owner of Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus - filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court arguing that it infringes on their constitutional rights and would result in an unfair taking of their property.
U.S. District Judge George Smith sided with the state, upholding the law last year; the case is pending on appeal in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Delaware lawyer Robert Owens, who is representing the owners, said the “hangman’s noose is there for these owners. No member of the public has ever been hurt by these animals. Why are we destroying businesses and seizing personal property?”
Polly Britton of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners said her members, some of whom are parties to the lawsuit, think they are “in real danger of having their animals taken from them.”
Many people think the exotic animal law stemmed from the incident on Oct. 18, 2011, when Terry W. Thompson, who lived near Zanesville, released his menagerie of exotic creatures before committing suicide on his farm. Forty-eight animals including lions, tigers and bears were killed by law enforcement to protect the public.
The genesis of the law, however, came in 2010 when the Humane Society of the United States lobbied Gov. Ted Strickland to sign an executive order restricting ownership of exotic animals as part of a package of reforms that included livestock standards, puppy mills and cockfighting. Strickland eventually signed the order, but Gov. John Kasich, his successor, allowed it to lapse after taking office in 2011.
Information on the law and permits is available at www.agri.ohio.gov.
People who wish to report a dangerous wild animal can call 1-855-392-6446.