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Published: Tuesday, 12/31/2013

Owners of dangerous wild animals in Ohio must get permits; state can seize creatures in 2014

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS — Owners of certain snakes and dangerous wild animals in Ohio must have a permit to keep their creatures beginning today, though the state has issued none.

Just seven applications returned to the state had been completed as of Tuesday, while another 30 are in progress, according to Ohio’s Department of Agriculture.

The permits are among the last pieces of the state’s exotic animal crackdown to take effect, following the 2011 release of dozens of wild animals by a suicidal owner at his eastern Ohio farm.

Authorities killed most of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers, and African lions, fearing for the public’s safety.

While the law allows for state officials to seize animals that are kept without a permit, that’s unlikely to start immediately in the new year. The agriculture department expects to receive applications into the new year, said agency spokesman Erica Hawkins.

“It’s not like we can show up and take the animals,” Ms. Hawkins said. “There’s a due process that is followed.”

Once applications are submitted, the agency has 90 days to decide whether potential permit holders have met the state’s new caging standards and other rules for keeping certain snakes and animals.

Ms. Hawkins said the department is eager to work with owners who want to comply with the law.

The new restrictions are being challenged by several animal owners, who have asked a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to strike down the law.

They are suing the state’s agriculture department and its director over the rules, claiming they infringe on their constitutional rights. Their appeal comes after a federal judge in Columbus upheld the law.

Several of the owners in the case believed they were exempt from the law, only to be notified recently by the state that they are not, said Polly Britton, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Animal Owners. The group boasts more than 8,000 members, whose animals range from domestic cats to Bengal tigers.

“We kind of feel like this is a bullying tactic,” Ms. Britton said.

According to the agriculture department, a couple of the owners didn’t have the correct species to qualify them for certain exemptions.

Owners applying for permits must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds, and prove they can properly contain the animal and care for it. They also had to register their animals with the state.

Ohio has 888 dangerous wild animals registered by 150 entities. That includes creatures kept at zoos, sanctuaries and other facilities that are exempted from the law.

It’s not clear how many of the animals are privately owned. But the agriculture department believes the majority of those registered belong to the zoos and other exempted facilities.

Still, some owners have not notified the state about their animals. Others have transferred their critters to another home without contacting the state, in violation of Ohio’s new law. And officials do not know how many owners fall into those categories.

The agriculture department has two full-time staffers dedicated to enforcing the law, along with four others that split time between the program and another. Hawkins said the agency believes that’s enough people to enforce the law.

“If there’s a huge influx (of permits), we’ll bring more people on,” Ms. Hawkins said. “We think given the number we saw through registration, this team should be able to cover it.”

Other pieces of the law, such as a ban on buying new animals, have been in place since 2012.

Ohio constructed a roughly $3 million building to temporarily keep animals surrendered to the state, should owners find they cannot keep the creatures or comply with the new rules.

Since opening in March, the taxpayer-funded facility has held at least 24 animals, including 20 alligators, three bears and a cougar. None were euthanized. The state has worked to find them new homes.



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