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exotic animal reforms - Ohio

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Posted by: mpollard at Mon Dec 12 12:28:12 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by mpollard ]

COLUMBUS — Next year, Ohio could swing from zero regulation on exotic animal ownership to imposing stringent regulations in the near term and an outright ban beginning in 2014.

Terry Thompson’s troubling actions on Oct. 18 in Zanesville probably forever changed how the state views private ownership of exotic pets.

Ohio currently does no monitoring or mapping of who keeps dangerous wild animals in their homes, and there is no coordinated attempt to keep track of animal escapes or attacks.

But when Thompson set free 56 lions, tigers, bears and other
dangerous wild animals before committing suicide in his driveway, it made news around the world and shined a spotlight on Ohio’s hands-off approach to exotic animal ownership. What had been a low-priority issue for the Kasich administration became white hot after Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 49 animals to keep them from escaping into the community, and the public demanded steps to ensure that such action never have to be taken again.

Two-hundred letters and more than 16,500 emails flooded the governor’s office, all supporting tighter regulations.
Another 108,000 emails came from an online petition push from urging stricter laws. The administration received just 20 emails and letters from opponents of stricter regulations, saying they didn’t want to lose their animals.

A task force delivered recommendations Nov. 30. They call for:

• Banning casual ownership of dangerous wild animals by Jan. 1, 2014. The ban would prohibit keeping chimpanzees, pythons, alligators, lions, grizzly bears or other dangerous wild animals in any setting except accredited zoos, research facilities and circuses;

• Naming the Ohio Department of Agriculture as the lead regulatory agency;

• Developing rules on care, confinement and security until the ban takes effect;

• Requiring animal registration within 60 days of the bill becoming law. Animals held privately after the ban takes effect would be subject to confiscation.

Gov. John Kasich’s press secretary, Rob Nichols, said the bill, which is now being drafted, will be based on the recommendations.

Nichols said the administration is confident that owners who care about their animals will make alternate arrangements for their care between when the bill passes and a ban takes effect.

“If you don’t give people enough time, they’ll either kill them or release them. There are no easy answers in this. At the end of the day, of fundamental importance is that we protect public health and safety,” Nichols said.

Animal rights advocates say the regulations can’t come soon enough. Animal owners, however, see the crackdown as a heavy-handed, unnecessary and unfair response to what Thompson did in Zanesville.

“You can’t punish everybody for something one person does. It is an isolated incident, totally,” said Robert Sawmiller, who keeps bears, coyotes, wolves and big cats on his property near Wapakoneta. Sawmiller said he makes a living exhibiting the animals across the country.

“There are a whole lot of people who have never had an escape, never had anyone get hurt, never had any problem whatsoever,” he said.

Sean Trimbach, who breeds and sells exotic animals at his home in Medway, said he is considering a move to Texas if the law passes.

“My wife and I both grew up here, in Englewood and Huber Heights,” he said. “But it makes more sense to continue doing what I enjoy and what I’m good at than to stay and have somebody tell me I can’t do it anymore.”

But Trimbach, whose enclosures house large snakes, bears and foxes, said he supports regulation to a point. Not everyone who keeps exotic animals is willing to open up their property so others can see what is there, he acknowledged, which can lead to problems.

“We have a plan about what to do if something were to happen, either to me or to the house,” he said. “They (local firefighters) went through and took photographs of what they needed to know. ... I think everyone should do that. I know the majority of people who have these animals don’t.”

Dangerous encounters

Even before the Zanesville debacle, Ohio had a number of dangerous encounters involving the public and privately owned wild animals.

The Humane Society of the United States has a five-page list of escapes, maulings and fatalities since 2000 in Ohio, culled from news accounts and police reports. The list includes: a pet grivet monkey escaped, scratched three children and led police on a three-hour chase through a Fremont neighborhood; a captive black bear fatally mauled a 24-year-old handler in Columbia Station; a 10-year-old girl was attacked by a pet cougar kept by a family friend in Lisbon; a 500-pound pet black bear was shot to death after it attacked a sheriff’s deputy in Mount Gilead; a 550-pound pet lion escaped and chased passing cars in Pike County; a black bear bit off a 4-year-old’s finger at his grandfather’s wildlife ranch in Uhrichsville; an escaped 500-pound bear in Ashtabula County broke into a woman’s home and attacked her; and in 2003, a Dayton firefighter who collected snakes and lizards died after being bitten by an African rhino viper.

The list also includes several reports of police finding abandoned pythons and boa constrictors in public.

Until now, the animal escapes and attacks, usually isolated incidents, haven’t led to a huge outcry for more government regulations.

“Most people who hear about incidents involving privately owned dangerous wild animals assume that the situation is an anomaly,” said Lisa Whatne, the humane society’s regulation specialist. “They have no idea about the prevalence of wild animals, including dangerous predators, in people’s homes, backyards, basements, garages and shoddy roadside ‘zoos’ all over the country.”

But Sawmiller and other animal owners accuse HSUS of peddling “propaganda.”

“Basically, HSUS is going to grasp at every straw they can to make us all look like criminals,” said Jamie Beneke, owner of Valley Exotics in Eaton. There needs to a balance, he said, between the right to own animals and the public’s right to safety.

Amanda Dalton, development director at Heaven’s Corner Zoo in Preble County, suggested animal rights “terrorists” may have played a part in the Zanesville incident.

“I really find it implausible that one person could let that many animals go and survive long enough then to kill himself,” Dalton said.

19 states ban wild animal ownership

Ohio’s exhibitors, breeders and dealers are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and inspected two to three times a year. The USDA only requires licensing when someone exhibits their animals for money, breeds them or transports animals commercially; it does not regulate reptiles.

HSUS employees read the reports and keep tabs on problems cited by inspectors, such as a lack of veterinary care, unsafe handling of animals, or inadequate housing or fencing.

According to HSUS, 19 states ban ownership of most dangerous wild animals, 11 states have partial bans, 13 states allow ownership through a permitting process and seven states, including Ohio, do not regulate it. In Ohio — a state that has long emphasized private property owner rights — the battle over the animal ownership ban likely will be heated.

“The Ohio Association of Animal Owners opposes the animal eradication plan that the governor has in place and we will fight it,” said Polly Britton, legislative agent for the 10,000-member group that includes owners of both domestic and wild animals. “People with animals in proper confinement should not be forced to give them up.”

Some lawmakers, too, are wary of going too far. Senate President Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, said he has concerns about whether the state can ban animals and demand forfeiture.

And still unanswered is what would happen to confiscated dangerous wild animals once a ban is in place?

“The Ohio Department of Agriculture made clear that by Jan. 1, 2014, they want these animals out of the state, alive or dead,” said Britton, who served on the task force, but does not support the recommendations made to Kasich.

Accredited zoos generally do not take cast-off wild animals and sanctuary space is limited across the country. Because of this, Whatne said, HSUS usually advocates for a “grandfathering” provision for existing animals and a ban on new acquisitions along with caging and husbandry standards and state inspections for the grandfathered animals.

“Transferring animals out of state to roadside zoos or poorly run rescue operations is not in the best interest of the animals as it is simply moving them from one bad situation to another,” Whatne said. “The goal would be to find suitable placement for as many animals as possible so they can live out their natural lives, but some euthanasia would likely be an inevitable circumstance of an immediate ban or a ban as of 2014. And again, that’s a result of the problem spiraling out of control in Ohio for many years.”


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