Exotic animal law faces challenge

By Alan Johnson

Columbus Dispatch


After Max the lion left Rescue One, taking his mighty roar to Mississippi, concerned neighbors began calling David Cziraky.

“Is something wrong?’’ they asked. “We don’t hear the lion roaring anymore.’’

“He liked to roar,” Cziraky said, a smile briefly crossing his face. “Unfortunately, sometimes he liked to roar at four in the morning.”

Max, Roscoe, China and 20 other animals began a mass exodus from the 12-year-old sanctuary outside Lancaster because of Ohio’s exotic animals law, which takes effect Sept. 3. While the full impact of the law won’t be felt until Jan. 1, 2014, owners of animals on the restricted list must begin registering them in six weeks.

Many are cooperating; some, however, have begun to fight back and plan to challenge the law in court.

Cziraky, 51, who operates the facility with his wife, Angela Harter, has a cougar, timber wolf and six hybrid wolves left to place from a sanctuary that once had more than 20 big cats and a black bear.

“It’s a big loss,” he said, standing in the empty enclosure Max once roamed. “They’re part of family.”

“Since they’re all going to good places, I feel like my kids have gone off to college,” Cziraky said. “But it’s not easy... I shed a lot of tears.”

Cziraky and scores of other owners across the state are facing difficult decisions about what to do next. Some are reluctantly giving up their animals; others are planning to keep them and take steps to comply with the new law. Some defiant owners are threatening to kill their animals rather than have them taken by the state.

One group of owners is banding together to file a lawsuit.

“The plan is to challenge the law,” said Polly Britton of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners. “Some people are taking on new animals while they can. Others are waiting to see what happens with the challenge to the law.”

Senate Bill 310, the state law enacted in response to the release and subsequent killing of dozens of animals owned by Terry Thompson of Zanesville last Oct. 18, bans ownership, breeding, sale and purchase of specified wild animals and restricted snakes as of Jan. 1, 2014. Current owners of restricted animals can keep them, but they must register them with the state, have microchips implanted in the animals for identification, pay permit fees of $250 to $1,000, obtain liability insurance up to $1 million, and meet fencing, signage and other requirements.

Complying with the new law will not be simple or inexpensive for many owners. The matter is complicated by the fact that the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which oversees enforcement of the law, is still working out details on caging, signage and dozens of other regulations. The rules must then by reviewed by the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, a legislative panel.

Erica Pitchford, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the agency hopes to work with owners so they can meet requirements of the law and keep their animals.

If they don’t comply, however, “the law gives us the authority to seize the animals,” she said. Details are still being worked out about what the state will do with animals it takes from owners.

Like Cziraky, other owners are begrudgingly relocating their animals.

Denise Flores, of Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center, in Ashland, has shipped off some of the eight tigers she once owned.

Six bears from the Paws & Claws Animal Sanctuary, in Prospect, are making a trip to Arizona.

Bobbi Brink, founder and director of Lions Tigers & Bears Big Cat Sanctuary and Rescue near San Diego, worked with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to raise $60,000 in donations to relocate Cziraky’s 11 tigers, six lions, five cougars and a black bear. They went to new homes in North Carolina, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, and Brink’s facility in California.

In the process, Brink personally drove 8,000 miles.

“It’s really hard to find homes for these animals,” she said. “Private owners are afraid. They don’t know what the rules are going to be. It’s going to be a huge challenge. My goal is to keep these animals from being euthanized.”

Cziraky, in the meantime, is struggling to find homes for the wolves and trying to make sense of the new law and what he will do in the future.

“The most important thing is the welfare of the animals,” he said. “This is something that needs to be regulated, but it doesn’t need to be banned.”

For more information on the law, visit www.ohioagriculture.gov and click on the ‘Dangerous Wild Animals’ link.

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