COLUMBUS — Months before Ohio authorities were forced to kill dozens of dangerous wild creatures let loose from their cages last fall, an animal owners group had been working with officials to help write proposed regulations on exotic animals in the state.
But now that the legislation is before state lawmakers, the Ohio Association of Animal Owners is gunning for the bill's demise, saying it's unfair.
The group boasts more than 8,000 members, whose pets range from domestic cats to Bengal tigers. They and other pet owners have packed Senate hearings on the bill and plan to keep urging state lawmakers through phone calls and letters to scrap the proposal.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen the regulations took on new urgency after owner Terry Thompson let 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — escape from his eastern Ohio farm before committing suicide on Oct. 18.
"After Zanesville, things just kind of blew up," said Polly Britton, a lobbyist for the owners association. "Our strategy has had to change."
So-called casual ownership of exotic animals would no longer be easy in Ohio.
The measure would ban new ownership of exotic animals, allowing current owners to keep their pets by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014 and meeting other conditions. Permit fees for keeping boas or venomous snakes would start at $100, while fees for lions, tigers and other dangerous animals would begin at $500. Insurance policies for dangerous animals could reach as high as $1 million, depending on the number kept.
Owners would be required to pass a background check, obtain liability insurance, implant microchips in their pets and show inspectors that they adhere to care standards and have taken safety measures such as fencing property.
Facilities accredited by some national zoo groups and licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be exempt, along with sanctuaries and research institutions.
The owners association sees the bill as unworkable because it says zoos and private owners aren't operating on the same playing field and don't have the same financial resources.
"We're looking for a bill that's fair and consistent," Britton said in a recent interview. "Everybody from the public zoos to the private, non-commercial owner should have to meet the same requirements, so that these animals can't get out and hurt anybody."
The group also wants to see all federally licensed facilities exempted from the permit fees and rules in the bill, among other changes.
"The list of amendments would be so long, we don't think all of them would get passed," Britton said. "And if they aren't all passed, then the bill is still unacceptable."
Janet and Gary Campbell are among the dozens of owners who have called on lawmakers to roll back the restrictions. The couple lives in Logan, which is about 50 miles southeast of Columbus, with three capuchin monkeys and a black-handed spider monkey.
"They have a wonderful place here," Janet Campbell said. "They are happy here."
The Campbells, who have owned monkeys for 11 years, acknowledge that keeping the pets can be costly and isn't for everyone. The monkeys' toys and tunnels have taken over their finished basement, affectionately called "the monkey room." They spend about $100 a week on the animals' food, which includes fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. The couple could face $1,000 in permit fees and have to obtain $250,000 in liability insurance, plus pay for signage at their home to alert people that there are exotic animals on the property.
"If they are going to start charging me $1,000 a year, that takes away from the care I'm giving them now and that upsets me," Janet Campbell said.
She doesn't have liability insurance coverage but says she doesn't let the animals near the public.
"Because of one person, one incident — we should all be punished?" she said.
The legislation has the support of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Columbus Zoo. The head of the Humane Society of the United States has said the measure would be a vast improvement for Ohio but had concerns over certain exemptions and snake ownership rules.
A state Senate committee has held several hearings, but a vote on the bill has not been scheduled. The panel is expected to hold additional hearings on the legislation after lawmakers return Tuesday from their spring break.
State Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville Republican who sponsored the bill, said he's taking the owners' concerns into consideration. He said he plans to review the permit fees and liability insurance requirements, though he doesn't see an exemption being made for federally licensed owners.
"Change is hard," he said, acknowledging that not everyone will be able to meet the ownership criteria. "I'm trying to give them the opportunity to keep their animals and to abide by the new rules and regulations."
He said the legislation is aimed at protecting the public, small business owners, animals and property rights.
"We're going to get a bill passed," Balderson said. "We can't put it off any longer."