Ohio struggles to draft tougher law after exotic animals' escape

COLUMBUS, Ohio Thu Apr 26, 2012 7:59pm EDT

A sign posted on Interstate 70 warns drivers of animals loose in the area around Zanesville, Ohio October 19, 2011. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan

A sign posted on Interstate 70 warns drivers of animals loose in the area around Zanesville, Ohio October 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Matt Sullivan

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Ohio legislation designed to clamp down on ownership of wild animals after the escape last year from a farm of dozens of dangerous beasts including lions, tigers and bears, is drawing criticism from private animal owners for being too tough and from animal rights activists as too weak.

More than four dozen exotic animals caused a panic near Zanesville, Ohio last year when their owner turned them loose and then committed suicide. Sheriff's deputies had to go on a big game hunt to track them down and killed most of them.

Since then, the Ohio legislature has tried to craft rules to make it harder for private people to own potentially dangerous wild creatures. Ohio is one of only a handful of states that has no limits on exotic animal ownership.

The state Senate passed a bill on Wednesday that would ban Ohio residents from buying lions, tigers, bears, elephants, wolves, alligators, crocodiles, and certain kinds of monkeys as pets, unless they follow strict guidelines.

Existing owners of wild animals can keep them if they follow the new rules, which include permit fees, registration and constructing proper facilities.

Republican state Senator Troy Balderson said the bill was designed to protect citizens, preserve the rights of law-abiding owners to care for their pets, and ensure animal safety. The House is reviewing the bill, and could vote by the end of May.

"If you own one of these animals and are willing to meet the state standards, you can keep your animal by simply obtaining a wildlife shelter permit" from the Department of Agriculture, Balderson said.

But Anna Wilcox, a Dayton woman who owns a small monkey, said the new state bill would require her to give up her animal because she cannot meet registration requirements and cannot afford the required $250,000 dollar insurance policy.

Wilcox argued that dogs can kill people, yet the state does not require dog owners to jump through these hoops.

She said her monkey does not have the ability to really hurt anyone. "He doesn't pose no more threat than a ferret. He's one pound ten inches and that's it."

Ohio Governor John Kasich expressed support for the bill.

"We don't want to have a situation where people continue to have lions, bears, and tigers on their front lawn," Kasich said.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said some parts of the bill should be stronger.

The Humane Society is not happy that the restriction on constricting snakes was weakened. The bill exempts boa constrictors, as well as constricting snakes less than 12 feet long.

"We don't think people should have these strong, constricting snakes as pets," Pacelle said. "Our greatest hope is that they don't weaken the bill further."

(Reporting By Jo Ingles.; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)

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