COLUMBUS — Nearly eight months after making international news when lions, leopards, tigers, and other wild animals were set loose on the Zanesville countryside, Ohio has its first law restricting ownership of such creatures.
Gov. John Kasich signed a law Tuesday that would, beginning in 2014, bar individuals from acquiring or transferring ownership of wild animals including bears, big cats, crocodiles, elephants, and most apes. Current owners could keep their animals if they acquire state permits and comply with new rules on caging, insurance, and other restrictions.
The law allows but restricts acquisition, ownership, and breeding of constricting snakes longer than 12 feet, including anacondas and pythons, as well as certain poisonous snakes.
In the meantime, owners of such animals would have to register them with the state within 60 days of the law's effective date. The law will take effect in 90 days.
"Those 38 hours, I'll never forget. I dream about it … " Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said of that night in Zanesville as law enforcement shot the animals to protect the public.
"This wasn't just the state of Ohio — everyone," he said. "It wasn't just the United States. This is the world watching. What you're setting here is precedent for those states that have no laws as well. God forbid that anything would ever happen in those states."
Opponents of the law have argued that it goes too far, punishing responsible animal owners because of the misdeeds of a few and trampling on individual property rights.
Cyndi Huntsman, owner and president of Stump Hill Farm in Massillon, said the law will put the nonprofit organization — with some 300 lions, camels, tigers, birds, bears, reptiles, and other animals — out of business. She is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but not the two zoological associations that can lead to exemptions under the law.
The law would allow Stump Hill to acquire and pay for permits to keep the animals it already has, but it endangers its long-term survival, she said.
"I'm going to try to become a member [of one of the other associations], but it will cost $30,000 to meet standards that are just aesthetics for visits for the animals," Ms. Huntsman said. "The bill does not allow me to exhibit the animals, have educational programs, or take the animals off premises to go to New York for a photo shoot. They cannot help Stump Hill to survive. They cannot help to pay their own feed bills."
Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Sen. Troy Balderson (R., Zanesville) exempts zoos, sanctuaries, circuses, and a single high school in Massillon that has a tiger cub as a sports mascot, as well as other private and public facilities accredited by the Zoological Association of America and Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
On Oct. 18, Zanesville farmer Terry Thompson released 56 of his lions, Bengal tigers, leopards, monkeys, wolves, and other animals before killing himself. The few surviving animals were kept in quarantine for a time at the Columbus Zoo but were ultimately returned to Thompson's widow and the Zanesville farm. One of the animals, a leopard, was killed in an accident while at the zoo.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland had included a temporary ban on the private ownership of wild and exotic animals in Ohio as part of a broader agreement with animal rights activists to keep a constitutional amendment regulating treatment of farm livestock from reaching the ballot.
Mr. Kasich, however, allowed the temporary ban to expire soon after taking office in 2010 as his administration began looking at ways to regulate such ownership. Then the Zanesville incident occurred, turning the spotlight on Ohio in a way its new governor did not want.
"It was about bizarre as it gets," he said.
The bill that reached his desk fell short of the outright ban on ownership that his own task force proposed. The original proposal would have required current owners of wild and exotic animals to transfer them to an approved owner or relinquish them to the state.
Mr. Kasich said, "We do have a ban ultimately, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say we'll phase it in. Security's got to be there for these animals. So it's not like going on as it was. I think it's a reasonable approach."
The law would also:
Require permitted owners of such animals to maintain certain records and notify the state Department of Agriculture if one escapes.
Make it a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, to intentionally release a restricted animal or snake into the wild.
Make it a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, to unintentionally allow such an animal to escape.
Require permitted owners of restricted venomous snakes to provide proof of access to the appropriate antivenin either on site or at a local hospital.
Require any animal other than a snake registered with the state to be implanted with an identifying and tracking computer microchip.
Charge permitting fees based on the type and number of animals owned.
Require the agriculture department to develop standards for the care and housing of wild animals and snakes.
Prohibit auctions of wild animals.
Provide civil immunity to a humane society or other enforcement officer who kills such an animal in the name of public safety.
Not override stricter local ordinances.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.