Ohio officials are preparing to impose new rules on owners of exotic animals – along with hiring more staff and writing new caretaking standards – without knowing exactly how many lions, leopards, bears and other creatures are living in the state.
That’s because until the governor signs the new regulations into law, which is expected in the coming weeks, Ohio’s restrictions on exotic pets have been among the nation’s weakest.
Efforts to strengthen the law took on new urgency after owner Terry Thompson released 50 animals, including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers, from his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville in October, then committed suicide. Authorities killed 48 of the animals as a public safety measure. Two others were believed to have been eaten by other animals.
The state Legislature cleared a bill last week that would immediately ban people from buying new dangerous exotic animals, such as cheetahs and crocodiles, once the measure takes effect.
Current owners could keep their creatures by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014. They would have to pass a background check, pay permit fees, obtain liability insurance and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and adhere to other standards.
Within 60 days after the bill’s effective date, owners would have to microchip their dangerous wildlife and register them. They’ll have to tell the state where the animals are, how many they have, what the creatures look like and who their veterinarian is, among other details.
State officials hope the registration process will give them a better handle on Ohio’s exotic animal population.
“We’re really kind of dealing with the unknown here,” said Dr. Tony Forshey, the state’s veterinarian, in a recent interview. “We don’t know how many is out there.”
Rough estimates by the department put the number of dangerous animals in the state close to 640, which includes venomous snakes. Officials acknowledge that figure is just a guess. It’s based on information from owners who already are licensed with state or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with reports from law enforcement.
Forshey said he expects that it will take time to figure out how many dangerous creatures are in Ohio. But, he said, the state is better equipped once the bill becomes law.
“Anything is better than what we had,” he said.
The state’s Agriculture Department hopes to get the word out to owners about registering their animals through organizations such as the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, zoo associations and veterinarians.
Officials are also preparing for what to do if the owners can’t meet the state’s new regulations, or if they want to get rid of the animals.
State agencies, the USDA and wildlife experts from as far away as California will meet next month to put together a list of potential animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities for unwanted or uncared for animals, Forshey said.
The local humane societies also anticipate becoming more of a resource for exotic animal owners.
While many shelters can take abandoned or neglected cats or dogs, very few are prepared for cougars, wolves or alligators, said Harold Dates, president of the SPCA Cincinnati.
“If somebody wanted to get rid of a lion today, and said, ‘OK. I’m done with it. Where can I take it, or can you take it?”‘ Dates said. “There’s probably not a lot of places that are going to say, “Yes, I’ll take your lion.”
Dates said there will have to be renewed collaboration between the state, dog warden, sheriffs’ departments and others to carry out the exotic animal restrictions.
The state’s Agriculture Department plans to hire a couple additional field staff members, whose expertise includes working with exotic animals – and not just cows, chickens and pigs, Forshey said. The agency will also rely on its four veterinarians and eight livestock inspectors out in the field to help with make sure owners are keeping up to code.
Getting a regulatory program started is expected to cost the state $600,000 to $720,000 in the first year.
The Legislature set aside $500,000 to help with the initial costs of the program. The administration hopes to help pay for it with permit fees from owners. Those dollars could start flowing into the state as soon as October, when the permit process begins.
Permits for bears, tigers and other dangerous animals would begin at $250 and could be more than $1,000, depending on the number of animals.
Forshey said figuring out whether there will be a shortfall of funds is difficult without an inventory of the animals in the state. But he said, “We’ll make adjustments as we go.”
He said he wasn’t too concerned about the possibility of owners going underground to thwart the state’s registration and permit requirements.
“These animals – especially the lions and tigers – they make noise,” he said. “They roar.”
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