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Published: Thursday, 12/1/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Plan would force owners to give up exotic animals

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- "Casual owners'' of tigers, apes, bears, venomous snakes, and other "dangerous wild animals'' would have to register them with the state, knowing they'll eventually have to surrender them under proposed rules submitted to Gov. John Kasich Wednesday.

A working group submitted its final report amid national criticism after a Zanesville man in October unleashed unregulated lions, Bengal tigers, monkeys, leopards, and other wild animals from his farm before killing himself.

Most of the creatures were killed by law enforcement. The few survivors -- a grizzly bear, three leopards, and two monkeys -- remain in quarantine at the Columbus Zoo despite an attempt by the farmer's widow to reclaim them.

The final report does not include a "grandfather clause'' that would have allowed current owners of such animals to keep them. Instead, anyone who isn't a zoo, wildlife sanctuary, research facility, circus, or a licensed "propagator'' would have to register the animals within 60 days of the law's effective date and meet fencing, animal care, and temporary public safety standards within six months.

If they haven't found an approved owner to take possession of the animals by Jan. 1, 2014, the state would confiscate them.

"We're working with zoos and sanctuaries to increase their capacity for surrendered and confiscated species,'' said Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The state has no good estimate on how many of these animals are out there. Neither Mr. Zehringer nor Dr. Tony Forshey, interim director and former state veterinarian at the state Department of Agriculture, would say what would happen to confiscated or surrendered animals if approved homes aren't found.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said it would be impossible for existing zoos and sanctuaries to absorb the expected large inventory of these animals.

"New capacity would have to be created,'' he said. "I would imagine that some euthanasia will occur. It's not a good outcome for the animal, but it may be an inevitable circumstance given that this problem spiraled out of control in Ohio for so many years. Our greatest hope is we find a place for these animals to live out the remainder of their natural lives.''

It was the Humane Society's threatened constitutional amendment dealing with the care of agricultural livestock in Ohio that led to a broader agreement with former Gov. Ted Strickland that included a temporary ban on the ownership of such animals.

Governor Kasich allowed Mr. Strickland's order to expire last spring while he set up the task force to establish rules to replace it. The Kasich panel stepped up its discussions after the Zanesville incident.

In the meantime, there isn't agreement among lawmakers as to whether a total ban on ownership of such animals is the right way to go.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the working group's final report is in line with the governor's thinking. "We're studying the details and reserve the right to seek minor changes, but the governor is looking forward to working with the General Assembly to see enforceable laws enacted quickly," he said.

Most animals covered under the proposed rules are non-native species, but ODNR stressed the ban does not apply to all nonnative species. While the definitions of some restricted animals exempt native species in some cases, including the black bear and timber rattlesnake, a separate portion of the report recommends that state law be changed to also restrict them.

The long list of "dangerous wild animals'' or "restricted species'' for which casual ownership would be denied includes but is not limited to big cats such as lions, tigers, panthers, and leopards; apes; elephants; gray wolves, and African buffalo. It bans venomous snakes, prohibits certain constrictors such as anacondas and pythons but not boa constrictors, and bans alligators and crocodiles but not dwarf caiman.

"Most of these species were selected by working with the working group,'' Mr. Zehringer said. "We took a lot of faith in their advice on this.''

Among those in the working group were representatives from zoos, the Humane Society of the United States, prosecutors, animal owners, inspectors, farmers, veterinarians, and sportsmen.

The report does not specify the criminal penalties that would be associated with violations of the new ownership, registration, or safety rules.

"That will be up to the legislature, but they will be severe,'' Dr. Forshey said. "They will probably be a felony.''

Mr. Pacelle said he believes the working group came up with the right list of animals that should be banned, but he questioned the allowance of two years for people to sell or transfer their animals elsewhere, including out of state.

"Governor Kasich had created a task force and he was going to do something,'' Mr. Pacelle said. "But the [Zanesville] incident made it plain to everyone, including the governor, that we needed to take immediate action, and we needed something that was meaningful. Simply regulating trade and possession wasn't going to work. These animals don't belong in people's basements and backyards.''

For more information or to read the final report, visit dangerouswildanimals.ohio.gov.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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