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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ohio law mostly silent on regulating wild animals

Jack Hanna wipes a tear from his eye as Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz announces that at that point they had killed 48 of the 56 exotic animals that were set free from the property of Terry Thompson Kopchak Road in Zanesville, Ohio on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. Lutz later said that 49 of the animals were killed and the others had been obtained except one monkey. Jack Hanna and members of the Columbus Zoo assisted the sheriffs throughout the day. Zach Gray/The Advocate / Zach Gray,

When animal sanctuary officials in neighboring states found out what happened in Zanesville, Ohio, they said they weren't surprised.

Ohio has some of the most lax laws regarding private ownership of exotic animals, being one of fewer than 10 states with no regulation.

"My reaction was, 'Here we go again.' said April Truitt, executive director and founder of the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Ky. "Ohio is simply full to the brim with exotic animal breeders. ... You can buy anything you want in Ohio."

The same response came from Ohio's eastern neighbor.

"We knew something like this was going to happen, we just hoped it wouldn't be on this scale," said Melissa Bishop of the East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue in Fairfield, Pa.

Truitt and Bishop were responding to a situation that broke late Tuesday, when authorities killed 49 of 56 exotic animals that escaped from a Zanesville farm after owner Terry Thompson killed himself.

These organizations say they get calls to come into the Buckeye State to pick up animals, or they get calls within their own states about animals that had been purchased in Ohio.

Joe Taft, founder of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Ind., said his center is frequently fielding calls from Ohio to handle exotic animals.

"While personally I'm not one of those people who thinks (private ownership) should be banned, I'm certainly one of those who thinks these activities should be regulated," Taft said.

He said there are auctions near the Indiana border.

"I constantly hear stories of people who have gone to Ohio and bought animals."

Truitt said there will be also be exotic animal auctions right on the Ohio-Kentucky border. Even though federal law bans interstate transport of these animals except in certain circumstances, it's ill-enforced.

"There's nothing cuter than a baby cougar when it's got blue eyes," Truitt said. "But six months later when it's grown up, people say, 'What did I buy?'"

Bishop's organization in Pennsylvania at capacity.

"We get phone calls all the time, mostly from Ohio ..." she said. "The market is flooded with exotic animals that have no place to go now that it's no longer a cute little baby being bottle-fed. Now it's going to eat them (the owners)."

Aside from the obvious, it's riskier to own an exotic animal because there are fewer veterinarians, and fewer places that will take them if they aren't wanted, Bishop said.

"If you're sick of your dog, you put an ad in the paper or take it to the (humane society). If you're sick of your tiger, you're stuck."

One of the auctions that used to sell tigers and bears is the Mid-Ohio Alternative Animal and Bird Sale in Holmes County, less than two hours from the Pennsylvania border.

There will be an auction on Nov. 4. A flier advertises the auction of primates, hedgehogs, swans, buffalo, mini-donkeys and ostriches, but no lions, tigers and bears.

The auction had to limit its operations after Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order that prohibited the possession, sale or transfer of certain dangerous wild animals in Ohio.

Even after the ban expired in April, however, the auction decided not to sell dangerous animals.

Thurman Mullet, owner of the auction, said the business fell under too much scrutiny by television crews for including these types of animals. The auction sold them up until last year.

Mullet said he supports regulation of these types of dangerous animals.

"If you ban them, no one can own them," he said.

Jeff Kremer, of the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., said 18 states have banned private ownership of big cats. Ten states have partial bans. Thirteen states require the owner to register the animal. Ohio is not one of them.

Kremer said some of the worst offenders are "pay-to-play" breeders. It's legal to allow public interaction with the animals when they are eight to 12 weeks old, so some organizations will take the baby animals to malls and fairs. "You can cuddle with the babies legally for a big fee," Kremer said.

But then the animals grow up, he said, and "that baby isn't cute any longer."

Ohio's climate is a non-issue, Kremer said, since these animals have lived in both this climate and in captivity their entire lives.

Should they escape, he said, "Their No. 1 threat for survival is going to be ... people with guns and finding food."

Truitt is hopeful that Ohio will finally pass laws following the Zanesville incident. "Perhaps some good can come of this and Ohio can finally pass something meaningful."

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