Law restricting exotic animals in Ohio demands enforcement

Owners of thousands of exotic animals in Ohio gambled that the state’s new Dangerous Wild Animals Act would be found unconstitutional. They passed up the chance to register their animals by the Dec. 31, 2013, deadline, which would have allowed them to keep their animals under a grand- father clause.

Now they’re in illegal possession of their wild animals, and the state faces an enforcement challenge that’s going to be more expensive and more intrusive than it would have been.

In early March, a federal appeals court upheld Ohio’s restrictions on exotic animals, rejecting a claim by owners that the law is too stringent. They also claimed it violates their free speech and free association rights because it exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.

In their suit, the owners stated that they “believe that private exotic animal ownership, free from government intrusion, should be lawful.”

In other words, they think that in a state where owners are required to have licenses for dogs, it’s none of the state’s business if they have lions, tiger, bears, gorillas, pythons and hundreds of other species in and around their homes.

A U.S. District Court judge in Columbus didn’t buy that argument in 2012, and three appeals court judges didn’t buy it this year.

The court said that the owners’ unwillingness to meet permit requirements or seek exemptions under the law does not mean that the measure compels them to join certain groups. “The act imposes a choice on appellants, even though it is not a choice they welcome.”

The owners also challenged the state’s requirement that animals be implanted with a microchip, calling it government intrusion on their property. The state argued persuasively that the requirements were similar to laws requiring license plates on cars, exit signs in buildings or fences in yards.

The owners are free to take their appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, but that is likely to provide little more than a further delay. Scores of states have had more restrictive laws on private ownership of wild animals far longer than Ohio, and those haven’t been found unconstitutional.


Ohio was dragged into the age of restriction by the horrendous events of October 2011 near Zanesville, when Terry Thompson, who operated an unregulated private zoo, released 50 wild animals into the countryside before killing himself. Faced with the oncoming night and the danger that roaming big cats and bears represented, the Muskingum County sheriff gave the only order he could: shoot to kill. Authorities killed 48 of Thompson’s animals.

Amazingly, six months later, while the Legislature continued to stall passage of a wild animal law, Thompson’s widow demanded that the Columbus Zoo release to her five animals that survived. The zoo was forced to comply, and she took them back to Zanesville.

The General Assembly finally passed a bill in May 2012 that was put into force in stages. The law required owners to get a new state-issued permit by Jan. 1 of this year. It also required background checks, fees, proof of liability insurance or surety bonds and a demonstration that they can properly contain and care for the animal.

During a two-month registration period in late 2012, 150 owners — private citizens and zoos — registered 888 dangerous wild animals, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In an interview with the Norwalk Reflector, Tim Harrison, the director of Outreach for Animals, a nonprofit exotic animal rescue organization, estimates that 90 percent of owners did not register their exotic animals. He said in Ohio, there are 1,000 to 1,500 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars, and about 1,000 bears.

The law defines wild animals to include: hyenas; gray wolves, excluding hybrids; lions; tigers; jaguars; leopards; cheetahs; cougars; bears; elephants; rhinoceroses; hippopotamuses; African wild dogs; Komodo dragons; alligators; crocodiles; caimans, excluding dwarf caimans; black-handed, white-bellied, brown-headed and black spider monkeys; common woolly monkeys, and red, black and mantled howler monkeys.

The Department of Agriculture built a $2.8 million, 20,000-square-foot temporary holding facility in Reynoldsburg. It was completed at the end of February, and since it opened 28 exotic animals — 24 alligators, three bears and a cougar — have stayed there. Harrison says his organization has moved 206 animals this year out of Ohio to sanctuaries across the country.

That leaves a lot of exotic animals in private hands and unaccounted for in Ohio.

Erica Hawkins, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, says the state will work with owners who want to complywith the law, even if they did not register their animals.

“They need to reach out to us as soon as possible,” she said. “But the law is still the law. There’s limitations in what we’re able to do.”

Those who have ignored the law so far would be wise to contact the Department of Agriculture now and reach whatever agreement they can. Otherwise, one complaint from a neighbor could bring the full force of the law on them , and there will be no room to bargain. Their animals will be confiscated and the blame will fall squarely on them and their intransigence.

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