Owners reject proposed Ohio ban on exotic wildlife

By Ann Sanner

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 6:10 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Aug. 25, 2010 file photo, Cindy Huntsman displays Banana, an albino Burmese Python, at her Stump Hill Farm in Massillon, Ohio. The Ohio Association of Animal Owners is objecting to a recommendation that the state ban ownership of venomous snakes, monkeys, tigers and other dangerous animals by 2014, arguing that those who are federally licensed to have the creatures shouldn't fall under the prohibition.

Mark Duncan, File, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An animal owners group is objecting to a recommendation that the state ban ownership of venomous snakes, monkeys, tigers and other dangerous animals by 2014, arguing that those who are federally licensed to have the creatures shouldn't fall under the prohibition.

A study committee and state agencies this week proposed a framework for new regulations in Ohio, which has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets.

Efforts to strengthen the state's law took on new urgency last month when police were forced to kill 48 wild animals — including endangered Bengal tigers — after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.

The Ohio Association of Animal Owners was a member of the study panel but says the proposal goes too far.

Polly Britton, a lobbyist for the organization, said the recommendations are so stringent that federally licensed breeders, exhibitors and others couldn't keep their animals and could be put out of business.

That's a concern shared by Amanda Dalton at Heaven's Corner Zoo and Animal Sanctuary in southwest Ohio.

Dalton, a volunteer and the development director at the West Alexandria facility, said she thinks officials need to recognize a difference between keepers who have dangerous animals in basements or backyards and those at federally licensed facilities that spend thousands of dollars on proper animal care and containment.

"Our facility is tip-top, and we should not be penalized just as a knee-jerk reaction to something that one person did," Dalton said.

The study panel's recommendations are only suggestions to state lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich, a first-term Republican who convened the working group in April. The ideas would have to be drafted into legislation, heard before committees and passed by the legislature before becoming law.

State Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville native, said he intends to pursue legislation on exotic animals, though he told Ohio Public Radio in an interview that the ban could keep some of the best private owners from having wildlife.

"I'm not a fan of banning them completely," said Balderson, a Republican. "I think we have some great owners out there of exotic animals that have business out of these, and I think they need to be taken into consideration."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Balderson declined to get into the specifics of what he would like to see in a bill, saying concerns he has about federal-license holders could be worked out and discussed in committee hearings.

He said he's visited several facilities that are licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and "they are fine organizations."

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols wouldn't say why federal-license holders weren't exempted from the proposed ban.

"I'm sure those conversations will be thoroughly addressed through the legislative process," Nichols said. "The framework is designed to best protect public safety and the animals. We think it is an appropriate response facing the situation in regards to these animals."

The framework for legislation suggests the ban start on Jan. 1, 2014. Owners would have to meet new temporary safety standards before then and register their animals with the state within 60 days of the law's effective date.

The recommendations make limited exemptions for zoos, circuses and research facilities. Animal sanctuaries with exotic animals would have to be licensed and regulated by the state. And after the 2014 ban, those with restricted wildlife who don't have proper licenses or aren't exempted would have the animals taken away by state or local officials.

The animal owners association said on its website Wednesday it would be "opposing the legislation if it's anything like what's contained in this overview."

Karen Minton, of the Humane Society of the United States, said her organization believes that the USDA licenses are too easy to get and there shouldn't be a blanket exemption for those who have them.

"We're not saying that they shouldn't be able to operate, but there should be additional measures," said Minton, the society's Ohio state director and member of the working group.

The working group held expedited meetings after farm owner Terry Thompson opened his cages and let his animals out on Oct. 18.

Police officers killed dozens of the animals, but three leopards, two monkeys and a young grizzly bear survived. The animals have been quarantined at the Columbus zoo, but Thompson's widow is appealing the state's quarantine.

The working group's recommendations for updating Ohio's laws are due to the governor by Nov. 30. Its finalized report will be sent next week.

Associated Press writer Kantele Franko contributed to this report.

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